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The Underground Railroad
Beatrice walked into her hut and slumped to the floor. It had been a long and tiring day caring for the mistress. It’s not that Mary wasn’t nice, but it was just hard work. Mary was not bossy, unlike her husband James. James was cruel and didn’t treat anyone fairly. He whipped slaves if they didn’t work hard, no matter what their health condition was. The James Hall Plantation was in Southern Carolina, the place where slaves were treated the worst. Beatrice was a 14 year old girl, and was a slave to James. She had never seen any of her extended family. The only people she had known in her life were her mother, father, and their friend Tom. Tom was also a slave for James, and he shared a hut with Beatrice’s family.
Just then, Tom burst in, full of sweat from running. Before he could catch his breath, he yelled out, “Beatrice, run! They are looking for slaves to trade with the David Plantation down the road!” At this, Beatrice jumped up. Every slave knew about the David Plantation. The owner was meaner then James. There were rumors that he watched slaves suffer just for the fun of it. Fortunately, Beatrice and Tom had planned on what to do if something like this ever happened.
“Where are mother and father?” Beatrice asked.
“They are already there, come when you are ready, I will meet you there.” Tom said with a wink. Smiled, then he left.
Beatrice’s heart melted. Even in this time of fear he was still able to remain confident. And that smile, every time she saw it, so felt like she could fly. Then Beatrice sighed with relief. She was glad that Tom had taken care of her parents for her, and now she knew that they wouldn’t be in trouble. She and Tom had made up a plan that if anything bad would ever happen, they would gather up all the food they could find, and head towards the creek bank. None of the slaves would ever go there because that was where James whipped the slaves, some even to death. Everyone was afraid that if they went there, ghosts of previous slaves would come after them, seeking revenge. But Beatrice and Tom knew better than that, so they had made that their permanent hiding spot.
Beatrice took the few belongings they had and put it all in a sack. She also tossed in a few chunks of bread and some now moldy cheese they had left over. She threw on her tattered cloak over her worn out work dress and ran out the door.
Just as she was nearing the creek, a hand reached out and grabbed her. Beatrice twisted around to see who it was, but as soon as she heard the voice, she knew, and her fists clenched in hatred.
“Hello Beatrice, where are you going this fine afternoon?” James’ son, Richard, asked. Beatrice had run into Richard before, and nothing ever good came of it. He was just like his father, cruel and mean.
“Why would you care?” Beatrice asked, not daring to look into his eyes.
“I was just wondering why my father’s slaves is running in the opposite way they were summoned. And for that, I will make sure that you are the first slave to be picked to go to the David Plantation.” And with that, Richard yanked Beatrice towards the wagon that was waiting to take her far away from the only home that she had ever known.
Beatrice struggled with all her might, but Richard was just too strong for her. Beatrice gave up, but then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a figure hiding in the bushes. Tom, she though, he will be able to help me! Her hopes were high, but then Tom turned his back. And without a sound, he was gone.
Beatrice’s hopes fell again, and she lost all hope of ever seeing her parents again. And Tom? How dare he desert her, after all they had been through! With these thoughts spinning around in her head, Richard tossed her into the wagon. Beatrice sat in the wagon while some others slaves joined her. Then with a lurch, the wagon started to move.
Beatrice finally got to the David Plantation after a day of being tossed around in the old wagon. She had to listen to children crying, adults groaning, and the sound of the wagon bumping along the old dirt road.
When Beatrice got out of the wagon, she nearly fell to her feet. Her legs felt weak, and all she wanted to do was to go home, no matter how harsh it was back there. But just as soon as everyone had gotten out of the wagon, a man came along with a big whip. Beatrice cringed at the sight of him. He was tall, and held the whip in his hand like he was born with it.
“Alright everyone,” the man said, “My name is David as some of you well know. You are here to do my work, so you had better do it well. Or you will have to answer to this!” While he said that he waved his whip in the air. In the back Beatrice thought she heard an old woman gasp with fright, and felt sorry for her. Why should he be able to treat elder people this way? It was not right. Somehow, Beatrice thought, I will change this, no matter what it takes.
“Follow me everyone, let me introduce you to your new…friends.” David’s voice burst into Beatrice’s thoughts. No matter what, Beatrice vowed, I will change this.
Beatrice found herself along with 5 other slaves forced to share a small hut with each other. There were no beds, not even a thin mat. There was a small bucket of muddy water in the corner, along with a torn up rag that served as a wash cloth. Beatrice put her sack on the ground and sat down. She looked around at the new faces. There were two children, an old man, and two women. Their faces all looked the same, hurt, angry, and most of all, afraid. They were all eyeing her curiously, but Beatrice was too tired to care. She lay down on the floor and fell into a fight full sleep.
Beatrice woke up the next day to the sound of water splashing onto the floor. She pushed herself up off of the floor, and saw one of the children trying to carry a big bucket of water back from the well. With much effort, Beatrice got up and walked over to the young boy.
“Do you need help?” Beatrice asked to boy. The boy looked up at Beatrice with his big brown eyes, and slightly shook his head. From out of nowhere, a whip came flying from out of nowhere. It looked like it was about to hit the boy. The boy cringed, but did not move. But just second before the whip was about to hit the boy, Beatrice pushed the boy out of the way. The boy got out of the way just in time, but it skimmed across Beatrice’s shoulder. She flinched, but said nothing.
“How dare you!” shouted a voice, “He was slacking out on his work, he deserved a good whipping. Why I ought to whip you good too. Lucky for you I have orders to not whip anyone on their first day. But just you wait, tomorrow, you will get it.” And with that, he stalked away.
“Thank you.” The boy said quietly. Beatrice thought that she saw the boy’s lips curl up into a smile, but it was gone within a second. “What are you going to do tomorrow? He will surely not forget how you embarrassed him.” Beatrice just shrugged.
“I will worry about that when the time comes.” But inside her chest, her heart was pounding very hard, she was scared out of her mind, but she couldn’t let the boy knew that.
“What is your name?” Beatrice asked the boy.
“Matthew.” Said the boy.
“Well, Matthew, I am sorry for causing you trouble. I have to go now, but I will see you around later, ok?” Matthew grinned at Beatrice. Then he picked up the bucket of water and kept on walking.
“You had better watch out” said a voice from behind Beatrice. Beatrice turned around to find an elder lady staring at her. “You have to run away, far away. Or else that man will make sure that tomorrow is the last day that you will ever live.” A shudder ran down Beatrice’s spine, she thought about it, but then pushed it out of her mind. The thought of dying scared her too much.
“What should I do?” Beatrice asked the lady, her eyes full of worry. The elder lady cocked her head and looked at Beatrice. “Isn’t it obvious? You have to run away and never return. Use the Underground Railroad that is the only safe way for you to travel.” The Underground Railroad, Beatrice thought, she had head that name somewhere, but she could not remember where. All of a sudden it struck her. Tom had talked about it! One night when they were falling asleep talking, Tom had mentioned the Underground Railroad to her, and how someday, they would try and run away on it together, and be free forever. The thought of Tom made Beatrice feel angry, how could he have just let them take her away from home like that? He should have done something, anything, to help her. I will do it, Beatrice thought, I will run away from this place forever, and never return. I will forget about my past and start a new future, where I am in charge of myself.
“Ok.” Beatrice told the elder lady. “I will do it. Where does it start?”
Beatrice had gathered information from the elder lady that it was a four week journey to freedom. She only needed to travel to a place called Canada, and then no slave owners would ever be able to capture her again. She would be able to lead a free life.
By the following day, she was ready to take off. The only thing she worried about was her parents. What would happen to them if she ran away? Would James kill them? But she couldn’t do anything to help them now.
The next night, Beatrice waited for everyone to fall asleep. Then she put everything in a little sack, and crept out of the hut. She knew the guards were drunk every night, so she didn’t have to worry about them. She just had to get the keys from the guard’s key chain, open the door, and sneak out without being noticed.
When Beatrice got to the gate, she found the guards sleeping. The keys lay all over the table, along with some cards, dice, coins, and many empty steins of beer. She picked up all of the keys and tried to fit each one into the lock. Finally, one of the keys turned, and the door made a small click.
Beatrice quietly opened the door, mentally shushing the creaking noise that it made. She took her first steps out of the plantation and closed the door. Then she ran towards the woods and towards her freedom.
It was the third week of her journey, and her food was running short, her clothes were all a mess, and she hadn’t had a bath since she left. She had stopped by lots safe houses, marked by a lit lantern in the window. There, she was given some water and a small bed in the basement.
After what felt like days of stumbling along, she finally came upon another safe house. Beatrice knocked on the door, and after a few minutes, a plump lady opened it.
“Oh my goodness,” the lady said, “You look exhausted, please come in.” Beatrice stepped into the house. She looked around and saw a table with a big bowl of warm soup. She looked at it longingly, but knew that is wasn’t for her. The safe house only provided protection, anything else was too risky. The lady walked over to the table, and Beatrice noticed that she had a small limp in her left leg.
“My name is Susanna,” the lady said, “You look hungry, if you want the soup, go ahead and eat it.” Beatrice said a quick thank you, and then ate the soup up. While Beatrice ate, Susanna said encouragingly, “You will make it, there is only a few days left. Then you will be free, and you don’t have to worry about those slave owners anymore.”
A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. “I am not expecting anyone.” Susanna said, “You should go into the closet in the basement and hide just in case it is someone that is up to no good.” Beatrice threw the spoon into the bowl, picked up her sack, and flew down the stairs. She jumped into the closer and slammed the door shut.
Beatrice’s heart was pounding, who could it be? Could it be David looking for her? Then she heard loud banging, and a door being opened. Then a deep voice called out, “Where is she? I followed her trail of footprints in the snow, I know she is in here!”
Just hearing that voice made Beatrice want to scream. The only thought that could keep her from rushing out of the closet and landing a blow on his face was that if she did that, there would be no possible way for her to escape. For up there, yelling at her to come out was none other than Richard himself.
“I was sent by my father to find her, and find her I shall, even if I have to tear down this house brick by brick.”
After that, Beatrice lost all hope of ever escaping. She could hear Susanna protesting that she did not know what they were talking about, and that no one ever came to her house. She could hear Richard pushing over the table and chairs, bowls and cups falling onto the floor. Then, she heard the small creak of the basement door opening.
Beatrice froze, afraid to breathe. Hoping, wishing, and praying that Richard would not look inside the closet. Richard walked slowly around the room a few times, and then she heard him say out loud, “Well, if she won’t come out voluntarily, I guess I will just have to force her to come out.” With that, Richard walked up the stairs and slammed the basement door.
Beatrice relaxed a little, happy that Richard was gone. But then she stiffened again. What if he burned down the house, then there would be no way out. The only way was the front door, and he would be guarding that. Then she heard the basement door open again, and someone walking towards the closet.
Beatrice stopped breathing. What would he do to her? Would he kill her? Or even worse, bring her back to the David Plantation to torture her until she died? The handle on the closet turned. Beatrice shut her eyes.
“Hurry, he locked us in. There is a secret tunnel leading away from the house, and into the woods. You will have to go on by yourself from here, I can’t run in my condition.” Susanna said in an urgent tone as she pointed to her bad leg. Susanna pushed a big box out of the way, and there was a narrow tunnel. Then she turned to Beatrice, and pressed a loaf of bread into her hands. “Go!” Susanna yelled at Beatrice. Beatrice picked up her skirt and ran into the pitch black tunnel without looking back. She heard an ear piercing shriek, and then everything was silent.
Suddenly, she heard other footsteps inside the tunnel, and a voice yelling out, “I’ll get you Beatrice, just you wait!”
At hearing the voice, Beatrice ran even faster. After a few minutes of stumbling around in the dark tunnel, Beatrice saw a faint light up ahead. The exit! Beatrice thought excitedly. She ran to the exit and broke out into the woods.
Beatrice survived a few days without interruption. She sometimes slept in hallow trees but traveled very fast for the rest of the time. Sometimes, when she was really hungry, she would stop and nibble on the bread that Susanna had given her.
After the fifth day of this routine, Beatrice saw a faint sparkle up ahead. At first she didn’t know what it was, but then she recognized the sound of a river flowing downstream.
Beatrice ran until she came to the river. She remembered that one of the other slaves had mentioned this river. When a slave crosses it, no slave owners own the slave anymore. The slave is then free! Beatrice jumped up and down with joy, but then she heard the sound of a galloping horse. Beatrice looked back, and she saw an angry-looking Richard on a horse, racing towards her.
“I’ll catch you, slave. And when I do, you will wish that you had never run away from the David Plantation!” Richard yelled his threat over the sound of the horse running.
In desperation, Beatrice jumped into the river. It was freezing cold, and Beatrice wasn’t a very good swimmer. She swam and swam. The current of the river was taking her downstream. She pushed herself to swim even faster. And finally, her feet touched the pebbles on the opposite bank. She dragged herself onto dry land, tired and panting. Beatrice heard Richard’s angry yells from across the river, but she didn’t care. He could not do anything to her anymore.
Finally, Beatrice thought, I’m in Canada. I’m free!
Beatrice woke up to the sound of the hustle and bustle on the street. She pushed herself out of her bed and pulled her clothes on. She picked up the empty water bucket from the side of her bed. Then she walked down the stairs to fill it up with water.
Beatrice’s life was very different than it had been before. Now she lived in a small apartment building with a lot of other girls. Each of them had a small room with a small bed and a table. They had to share one bathroom and a kitchen. All of them did have one thing in common though; they all used to be slaves that now worked for families as cleaners. Beatrice worked for the Jones’ family, who paid her 1 dollar a day. They were a family of three, a mother, a father, and a little girl. The little girl was 6 years old, and her name was Rhia. Beatrice had found out that Rhia was different than the other people that lived in Canada, she was nicer somehow. Every time Beatrice walked into the Jones’ house, Rhia would be waiting for her at the door. And while Beatrice was busy cleaning, Rhia would follow her around the house, helping Beatrice with the cleaning when Rhia could reach.
As Beatrice filled the bucket up with water, she could hear the other girls also starting to wake up. When her bucket of water was full, Beatrice carried it up the stairs and set it down on her table. With her little washcloth that she had bought from the store, she washed her face. Feeling cleaner, Beatrice put her money into her inside coat pocket and walked out the door.
Beatrice started towards the small grocery store that was across from the little apartment building. Beatrice had always gone there to buy a little slice of bread for breakfast. As Beatrice walked closer to the store, she saw a lot of people gathering around a small stand placed outside of the store. Curious as to what was going on, Beatrice slowly walked towards the stand. It was then that she heard the voice of who was talking. It was Richard.
Richard was talking to a big crowd of people, waving a piece of paper in the air. On the paper was a picture of Beatrice. Beatrice held her breath, Richard was looking for her! She had to run away from this place before he found her, but how could she? The Jones was such a nice family and treated her fairly, and Beatrice could not stand to leave Rhia. Beatrice stood there, not moving a muscle, trying to decide what she should do. No, Beatrice thought, I won’t do it. Richard cannot bring me back anyway, I am safe now. But just as Beatrice turned to leave, Richard turned his head slightly. Seeing Beatrice, Richard grinned.
Beatrice turned and began to run. She kept on saying to herself, I can’t go back, I can’t go back. She heard footsteps behind her, and turned to catch a glimpse of Richard catching up with her. With a final burst of energy, she ran into the Jones family’s house. Rhia was there, as always, carrying a pail full of cleaning equipment. As soon as Rhia saw Beatrice’s face she knew something was wrong. Rhia ran to the door to lock it, while Beatrice slumped to the floor, all the time muttering, “I can’t go back, I can’t go back.”
It was silent for a while, and then there was a loud pounding on the door. Beatrice’s face turned as white as a sheet, and seeing this, Rhia ran to get her parents. When the Jones family was all there, Beatrice hadn’t moved a muscle, and Richard was still pounding on the door. Right away Rhia’s father had guessed what was happening and called Officer Troy. In a few minutes, Officer Troy came to the house. When he saw Richard pounding with his fists on the door, he knew something was very wrong.
“Hey there fella, whatcha doin’ here, eh?”
Richard turned around and glared at the officer, and replied in a sharp voice, “I am getting what is rightfully mine, so you might as well just leave.”
“I don’t think so mister; what you’re doing is intruding on people’s property, eh. So you just go and leave them alone, see.”
Richard continued to stare at the officer for a while, and then turned around and kept on banging on the door. Officer Troy, getting tired of this young man’s behavior, grabbed his arm and yanked it behind Richard’s back.
“Alrighty mister, I don’t know who you are or what you want, but it is time for you to give up this wild chase. You’re coming with me.”
Beatrice watched all this from a window, and as Officer Troy dragged Richard off, she could hear his vengeful shouts: “Beatrice, I know you can hear me. I’ll get you; if it’s the last thing I do, I will make you pay for this!”
Mr. Jones put his hand on Beatrice’s shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “Don’t worry,” he said, “You’re safe here, and you always will be.”
As Beatrice lay awake that night, she couldn’t get the words of Richard’s threat out of her head. When she finally fell asleep, she had terrifying dreams of people chasing her, and a big black hole from which she had escaped was trying to drag her back in. When she woke up, Beatrice knew that she could no longer stay there, so she packed up her little bag full of her belongings: a little brush, a washcloth, and a picture that Rhia had drawn for her. Seeing the picture, Beatrice felt a hot tear run down her cheek. How could she leave little Rhia without telling her? She had to at least tell them she was leaving.
When Beatrice walked up the familiar steps, she saw through the window a dark figure standing in the living room. He was too tall to be Mr. Jones, and he seemed to be shouting at someone.
“What’s the big idea?” she heard an angry voice shout, “How could you let them take my son away over some slave girl? You should stick to your own kind, or you will regret it!”
As soon as Beatrice heard the voice, she froze; for she had heard that voice before, many many times. It was the voice of James, her old slave master. She quickly turned around and started walking the other direction. How could she say goodbye with James in the house? She would just have to go on by herself. She hoisted her bag back onto her shoulder and started out.
After walking for many hours, she came upon a small village. The snow had started to come down a few hours earlier, and she was wet, cold, tired, and very hungry. She came upon a nice little house, with light shining out of all the windows, and the heavenly smell of roast beef floating out from the kitchen. Nevertheless, the door was shut, so Beatrice kept on moving.
Then Beatrice came upon a little house, and she could barely stand up against the strong wind. Beatrice, with her whole body shaking, pushed open the door. The door creaked in protest, but finally allowed itself to be pushed open. Inside the house was dimly lit, with spider webs hanging from the ceiling. Still, it looked cozy enough, with a nice big fireplace in the wall. Anyone could tell that no one had lived there for a long time, and no one intended to come back, because the whole house was bare of any furniture it once possessed.
Not being able to feel the tips of her fingers, Beatrice thought it might be a good idea to go get some firewood. Because the wood was damp, she could only get a small fire going. After taking off her outer clothes, she used a big stick to clean up all the spider webs. Feeling like she had accomplished something, she laid down on the floor and fell asleep.
The next day she woke up and saw the sun had come up and was shining on a white blanket of snow. Putting on all her clothes, she went outside to see what she could see.
The cold outside took her breath away, but that did not stop her from wandering all the way around the house. She saw that the house needed a lot of work, and that there was a little forest behind it. It was also a ways from the village, so she would have some peace and quiet.
Seeing that her firewood was all gone, she went into the woods to get some more. Walking through the newly fallen snow, seeing the birds chirping among the trees, she realized that this would be her new home. No doubt about it, she would stay here and try to make a living. She knew that is would be tough, but this time she would be free, really and truly free.