The chilling night air swirled around James Henry as he stumbled blindly over the treacherous forest floor. Just above the treetops, the full moon hung low in the sky, swathed in a shawl of thick clouds. James hurried breathlessly through the dense undergrowth, ignoring the brambles that cruelly cut and scratched his skin. Tree branches snagged at him, like claws of demons, and spooky noises all around him seemed to be sounds of his pursuers. A sudden hooting of an owl sent him sprawling across a fallen tree trunk in fright and he rose in a panic, his sweating face a mask of terror. He lurched forward into the bushes once more and continued his desperate flight.
His thoughts raced back to that fateful Wednesday afternoon. The day had been a blistering heat bath and the air was so thick you could barely breathe. While working in the fields, he had fainted from exhaustion. The overseer, who had a horrible temper, was already in a foul mood from the scorching weather. He threw himself upon James in a fury, and whipped him frenziedly until his back was thick with blood. James decided that night he would run away. He had had enough. Gathering his small bundle of pitiful belongings, he stole off just as dusk fell.
At first all went well. By night, he traced his way using the North Star as his guide. By day he hid and slept. But then the nights turned cloudy, blocking the stars, and he lost his way. Then, this night, a group of slave-catchers had stumbled upon him while he was resting, and he just barely got away. But they were hot on his trail and it was only a matter of hours before they caught up with him.
Suddenly, he stopped, chest heaving from exertion, heart pounding. He heard it. The sound of hoofbeats echoed in the distance, like drums heralding an execution. He paused an instant, stricken with fear, then broke into a run, his small bundle of possessions slapping against his back with every step.
James did not have any memories of his father or mother. When he was just a little boy, the Wicomico plantation he was born on went broke, and he was sold off to Talbot County. He recalled having a brother, but hadn’t seen him since he was sold off. He was now, as best as he could calculate, some eighteen years of age, and until a few days ago had lived at the plantation of Mr. Stuart Henry. Mr. Henry’s plantation was enormous, and tobacco was the staple crop grown there. The field hands had to do backbreaking work from dawn to dusk each day, watering the precious tobacco leaves, tending to them, and worst of all, picking the horrid tobacco worms from off the undersides of the leaves. James had experienced this horror every day for as long as he could remember: the scorching sun pounding on his back, the lash of the overseer’s whip, and the constant humiliation of being a slave. He had also hated it for as long as he had known it, and he had always promised himself that one day he would get out; one day he would escape!!!
Now here he was, running through the woods driven by sheer panic, branches stinging him as they slapped at his face. Suddenly, he saw the faint glow of a light about fifty feet ahead. He slowed down and approached it cautiously. He emerged at the edge of a clearing, and saw a house, with a lantern swinging on the gate. Swinging!!! He had just registered this when strong arms grabbed him from behind and he found himself looking into the face of a bearded, heavyset man. Paralyzed with terror, he opened his mouth, but then the man chuckled and said, “Heh heh, ain’t safe for someone like you to be out here this late!”
They walked up to the house and the man ushered him in quickly. “Sarah!” he whispered hoarsely into the gloom, “I’ve got someone here who needs help.” Seconds later, a smiling, plump woman appeared and hurried James down the hall to a room on the right, while her husband left and went upstairs.
“You’ll be safe in here,” she whispered, picking up a rug and opening a trap door. James looked down and saw that below the paneled floor there was a pit, about fifteen feet deep.
He looked back at the woman and began, “I can’t tell you how much . . .”
But she interrupted him, “Shhh, no time for this. Get in!” He lowered himself down, and just as the trap door closed, there was a knock on the door.
James huddled in the darkness listening intently. After a short pause, he heard a shuffle of feet, and the sound of a door opening. “Yes, may I help you?” said the woman.
“Yes ma’am,” a deep raspy voice replied, “we’re looking for a runaway. Would you mind us having a little look?”
“Oh no, there’s no problem,” said the woman. More shuffling of feet sounded, accompanied by the sharp click-clack of boots on the wood floor.
James heard them walk down the hall, pausing every so often as the man looked in a room. “. . . with the new Fugitive Slave Law, business is really good. I can even get away with returning slaves without a trial . . .” The man was nearing the room in which James was hidden.
Suddenly, the man’s voice trailed off and the footsteps halted right outside the room. “Is anything the matter?” James heard the woman ask.
“Oh, nothing . . . nothing,” mumbled the man. James’s palms began to sweat as he heard them enter the room and he shivered, despite the stuffiness of the pit. He crouched there for several terrible seconds. Without warning, the rug was swept off the floor. He heard the woman protesting, but suddenly the trapdoor was wrenched open and he stifled a gasp of horror. A second later he was roughly hauled up onto the floor. “Well, well,” said the man, looking at the shocked woman, “looks like you and your husband are in for some jail time, and this one’s off to the chain gang.”