A splash was heard in the ebony waters not twenty yards from the small group huddled together by the river banks. Every soul froze and their panicked screams were blocked by lumps of frozen terror in their throats. In each mind played a full-color, surround-sound scenario of the consequences if they were caught. They had seen it hundreds of times: tied to the whipping block, bare skin blistering under the high-noon sun, starving and dehydrated, the master’s whip, the only variance in the long days of punishment. Luckily for them, their black faces did nothing to reflect the moon which was now and then peering from behind the eerie clouds that moved at an alarming pace across the sky. An irate squirrel chattered his annoyance at his lost nut as if it was the fault of the clandestine visitors gathered below his tree.
“Don’t thtop,” Harriet lisped in a hushed voice. “We have a long wayth to go before the nektht thtation.”
The five escaping slaves let out the breath that had been captive too long. If the moon had been full and bright, you would have seen five black faces turn blue. Though fear had turned their legs to cooked spaghetti, they managed to command their feet to place themselves one in front of the other. The darkness rarely brought relief from the mid-summer heat in those southern states. Although the nearness of water was a blessing, it was also a curse. The mosquitoes did about as good a job at eating away their flesh and blood as would the shrapnel from the overseer’s rifle if they were found. Days and nights of barely more than a corn kernel to nibble on had worn away at the steely muscles built over a lifetime of slavery, and fear gnawed away at sanity.
“I ain’t got no mo’ lef’ Miz Tu’man.” One of her charges faltered a step, and Harriet caught the huge man on her shoulders and half dragged him through the tangled brush and thick, sticky mud on the river bank. “Keep awn keepin’ awn brutha,” she whispered back. Although her own strength was failing her, Harriet was driven by the precious lives placed in her hands. “Go down, Moses,” she sang softly to quiet the thumping hearts of her charges, “Way down to Egyptaland.” Five other voices harmonized in the eerie tune sending a strangely sweet and pathetic cry to heaven. “Tell ol’ Pharaoh, Let my people go.” And they trudged on in search of a hideaway to rest during the light hours. Dawn broke on the flat horizon, turning the sky blood red; as red as the Nile River when Moses touched his staff to it. To the exhausted escapees it spoke of the Lord’s miracles for the freedom of His people; and with this promise in their hearts, they slept.
Slight vibrations in the ground awoke Harriet, who always seemed to sleep with one eye open. She put her ear to the earth to assess the source and the distance. Horses! Perhaps one mile! Fortunately, they did not seem to be moving fast. Without a word she awoke her sleeping charges, trying to appear calm so as not to rile them. It was still daylight, and the horses were getting closer to their hiding place; not knowing how close they would come.
“Tis sumthin’ da matta’ Miz Tu’man?” came the sleepy-eyed questions.
Ho’ses. Many. Don’t know where they’s aheaded and we ain’t gonna stay t’ find out neitha,” Harriet answered forcefully. Though they had crossed into a free state the previous night, the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law demanded the return of human property to the owner, which meant that they would not be safe so close to the border dividing the free states and the slave states.
“Why, dey might’nt come here! We’s safe hidin’ here.”
“No, they’s gunna look wherever’s a good hidin’ spot. Move out!”
“No! We’s safe not ta move!”
At this Harriet pulled the pistol from her ankle holster and aimed it at the defiant slave. What did he know of the tactics of the slave hunters? She had helped over 300 slaves to escape safely so far, and a single defiant slave would not jeopardize the rest if she could help it.
“You trust Ms. Tu’man now! I ain’t let one slave get caught, not now, not neva eitha!” Whether shocked or frightened into submission, the persuasion worked and they headed out to the station which was now just a few miles away, and not another word was spoken. Though the tactic was unpleasant and rather unconventional, it was one that had served to press on slaves beaten by fatigue, hunger, fear, and despair, and never once had Harriet lost one of her charges.
“Praise be!” went a jubilant cry. Into the deepest recesses of memory went the horror of their journey as the large estate of their white redeemers came into sight. A green flag was hanging from the gate, signaling that all was well for them to enter.
Entering into the parlor of the huge mansion, each slave, safely freed, bent to kiss the aged face of their tough savior, and gave thanks to God.
“Miz Moses, thank ya kindly.”
Harriet Tubman helped over 300 slaves escape from slavery before the Civil War. Her service to her fellow slaves earned her the nickname, Moses of her People. On her death bed she was able to boast, “I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” And indeed not one slave Harriet Tubman guided toward freedom was ever captured.
Alicia Freedman works at Steps to Life as a part of the LandMarks team. She can be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org