Trigger Warning: Story about slavery, make some assumptions.
My mother once told me that fortune favours the brave. And for a long time, I believed her.
The sun’s blazing heat hammered my naked back. With aching limbs I strained to pluck the cotton pieces from their plants. I tossed them into my basket, one that’d been weaved of dried sweetgrass and flower stems. I looked across the large plantation, wiping a sea of sweat off my face. As far as I could see, there were people who looked like me.
And only people who looked like me.
The same colour of the rough soil that I walked across, of the sturdy baskets I filled. Not those the same colour as the tiny fleeces I picked. Not even those whom I picked them for.
“AAAHHH! AAAHHH!” A terrifying scream seized everyone's attention.
A handsome White man with a large face trotted across the fields on his magnificent white horse. It was Harry Ford, one of the master’s watchmen. Attached to the horse, roped up and being dragged across the coarse dirt, was a female slave.
Runners were those brave souls who wished for a better life. Those who thought their skinny legs could race past bloodhounds, horses, and rifles. Those who put on the fool’s mask, truly believing that they’d escape from these hellish lands.
That’s all the brave really are. Fools.
“Quiet you filthy monkey!” Ford shouted as she struggled to break free.
Tears streamed down the girl’s face as she howled in agony. Her frail body was hauled into one of the empty barns near the field. Ford drew a leathery strip from his waist. A whip. No one saw what happened in that shed. We heard it. Sharp, loud cracks of lightning. Thunderous yells of torment. My imagination didn’t fail to help me picture the twisted, devilish smile on Ford's face.
I knew from experience that fortune didn’t favour the brave.
The brave got beaten.
“Wendell! Come over here!”
Reginald was an older slave, one that I respected as if he were my own father. I’d never met my real father. My late mother always said he was a foolish man. Someone who didn’t want to see me. Someone I shouldn’t want to see. A fire of resentment towards him kindled inside of me.
“Tell me about that crazy girl,” Reginald muttered. He was crouched down, his spider-like limbs picking at the cotton plants.
“Which girl?” I followed his lead, fearful of getting caught.
“I know as much as you do,” I flushed.
“Don’t lie to me boy! I hear things.”
Two weeks after she’d been caught, I ran into the young lady. Her appearance was disturbing. Her body was covered with streaks of bumpy, purple flesh. Her eyes were as swollen as a toad’s. Yet, under all the injury, I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful she was.
I spotted her as we headed to the sleeping grounds. By now the sun had set, leaving the faint moonlight to shine upon her fair features. I tried hard to tear my eyes away from her- failing. She looked back, her gaze meeting mine.
“What is it?” she asked, her voice sour and uninviting.
“N-Nothing,” I stammered, looking down in shame. She walked towards me, lifting her arms and revealing a horrid collection of scars. A hair-raising chill swept over my body.
“There,” she frowned, “And please, if you reckon me a fool, then say so.”
“Why would I think that?” Sure, she might’ve been a fool, but now didn’t seem like the time to tell her that.
“Everyone else seems to think that,” she sighed wistfully.
“Is that the truth?” she asked. Her words felt dangerous. The distance between us was small enough that I could hear the lively thumping of her heart.
“You don’t believe me?” I asked.
“Say it. Say that I’m not a fool. If you lie to me, I will hurt you. And you ain’t pretty enough to survive that.”
A thin smile crept upon my lips. “I think you’re…very brave.”
Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I’m glad. If you want…there's some free room in the back of my shed.”
My eyes widened in realisation. I slowly nodded. She grabbed my rough hands and began to lead the way.
“W-Wait a moment,” I said, “I forgot to ask your name.”
“Maribelle,” she said. “My name’s Maribelle.”
“What happened after that?” Reginald croaked.
“W-Why, that’s a private matter!” I exclaimed.
The old man laughed. “I think it’s nice that you’ve found someone special. You haven’t got anyone else, and I won’t be alive forever.”
For weeks I met with Maribelle in the back of her sleeping quarters. She liked to talk. Talk about life, her family, and dreams of freedom. Some nights, she let her actions do the talking.
Weeks turned into months, and months turned into a year. After a backbreaking day of labour, there was nothing I wanted to do more than to hear her voice.
That is, until she got pregnant.
One month later…
Maribelle made the decision as soon as she realised she was having a baby. She would run once more. For her own freedom, and to give her unborn child a better life. When she came to me with the news, I was shocked. For the first time in a while, I didn’t sleep in her shed.
I’d seen what happened the first time she tried to run. For a second offence, however, the punishment would be harsher. She would die. If I ran with her, I risked being caught and made an example of. I would die too.
For a short moment, though, these thoughts cleared from my mind. I imagined a life where we were free. The crying of my baby. The smile of my baby. Watching them grow into a fine young person. The thought of being there for them was what made my decision.
I would wear the fool’s mask.
Leaving tonight was our best option. We were in the climax of Maryland’s winter, and the long nights made it easier to cover more ground. Our journey to Canada would take us four months.
During the colder parts of the year, male slaves either cleared snow or tended to livestock. I, a youthful, strong man, was sent off to clear the streets. As the day came to an end, my body was in terrible pain. I returned to the sleeping sheds exhausted. I saw Reginald for what would be the final time.
“Good luck Wendell,” he spoke softly.
“That’s all you have to say?” I laughed, my eyes watering.
“Take these.” Reginald placed four cotton pieces in my hand.
“So you remember me. Remember this.” He gazed over the snowy fields of the plantation.
“I’ll have nightmares,” I wiped my eyes, placing the cotton in my pocket. “I can’t forget, no matter how bad I want to.”
Reginald smiled faintly, “A young man like you has a yet to see the world yet. When you do, you might forget where you come from. If you do escape, they’ll be there to remind you.” He pointed to my pocket.
“And if I don’t escape?”
“...Then I pray they soften the lashing of the whip.”
“Are you ready?” I asked Maribelle.
“Yes.” She didn’t hesitate.
A scraggly guard was placed near the lengthy hog fence. Even without seeing him I knew he was pacing from one end to the other. The patter of his footsteps grew loud. Louder. Then faint. Fainter. Then, they were gone.
We made a dash for the fence, keeping light on our toes. I helped Maribelle over first, then leaped over it next. I prayed the dark of the night would hide our tracks. We ran without looking back.
After each passing mile I found it harder to breathe. The cold air burned my throat. I had no choice but to keep going. Maribelle looked half-conscious, being kept from passing out by only the freezing snow.
Finally, we made it off the plantation, stopping to catch our breath. A thick bundle of crooked trees surrounded us, and through the dim moonlight I could see a string of houses and a cobbled dirt road.
“Are you sure she’s going to be here?” I asked Maribelle.
“Yes,” she responded, panting. “She will.”
On cue, a short Black woman appeared beside us. Her hands motioned for us to follow her. Her mysterious emergence frightened me, but not enough to overwhelm my tiredness. We went along with her.
The woman peeked out of the forest. I heard the clip-clop of a horse, and the creaking of carriage wheels. What’s going on? I wondered. Was this one woman crazy too?
From what I could observe, the coachman was a portly White man. I tried to pull Maribelle away, but she resisted. The coachman stopped in front of the short woman.
“Get in,” she told us. Maribelle followed her into the carriage. Reluctantly, I followed.
Inside the coach was an elderly White lady. In her bony hands were brown-coloured sheets that’d been tied to wear as cloaks. She handed them to me, Maribelle, and the short woman. We slipped them on and covered our faces, following her lead.
Moments later, the carriage began to move. I looked at the short woman, noticing her stern expression. I understood that we had to be quiet, but I had an important question to ask.
“Who are you?”
She smiled. It was a glum, sad kind of smile.
“My name is Harriet. Harriet Tubman.”
Three weeks later…
We’d made it to the outskirts of Maryland, and closed in on Pennsylvania, a free state. The journey would become easier once we’d crossed the border. Still, we feared being caught. The vast land of brittle white snow served as a reminder that we were always surrounded.
I’d learned a lot about Harriet. She was a freed slave who’d escaped to Philadelphia, yet she returned many times to help other slaves escape. Along the way we’d joined with, by my count, twenty other runaway slaves. I was in awe of her courage.
A system called the Underground Railroad was used to help us hide from slave patrols. Homes, churches, and other establishments gave us locations to eat and rest.
“Not too far away now,” Harriet shouted to the group. We walked in an orderly line, women and children took the front, men took the rear. I was at the tail end.
“There’s a church just North of here,” she called back a second time. Cheerful chatter began to spread among the group. Mothers hugged their children. Some elderly folks broke down in tears. We’d finally made it. It seemed unreal, as if it were only a dream...
An ear-splitting sound pierced the air- and someone's body. One boy dropped hard to the snow-covered ground, red liquid oozing from his belly.
"RUN!" Harriet shouted.
The group scattered in different directions, weaving through the trees and bushes. I did too. The boy was dead. We couldn't save him now.
I darted towards Maribelle, grabbing her by the shoulder and pulling her behind a tree. The gunshots didn't let up. People were dropping dead faster than Mayflies.
"Follow Harriet," I huffed. Despair inked Maribelle's eyes.
"What about you?" She wailed loud enough for every slave owner in Maryland to hear.
I swallowed hard. "Tell my child...that if I could be there for them...I would. Please...promise me that."
She scrunched her face and nodded violently, tears dripping onto the snow.
"Now GO!" I yelled.
I ran towards the sound of the guns, not daring to look back. I spotted where the firing was coming from: Two White men with powerful rifles. One of them looked familiar.
"Oooh, ooh! Aaah aah!" I screamed, aiming to grab their attention. Gunshots rang out, bullets grazed nearby branches. I began to run West.
"After him!" Ford called out.
Snow crunched loudly under my feet. There was no way to hide from them. All I could hope to do was drag them as far away as possible.
BANG! A second later, and a tight, burning pain invaded my shoulder. The bullet nearly knocked me over. Gritting my teeth, I kept running.
Up ahead was a small drop down a hill. I jumped down without a second thought. A soft pile of snow softened my fall.
At the base of the hill was a small cave. I quickly hobbled inside. Moments later, both Ford and his accomplice dropped onto the pile of snow.
"We're splittin' up Arnold," he spoke gruffly, "You check the cave, I'll keep going West. He can't be too far from here."
The one named Arnold cautiously crept into the cave. I'd hid near the very back, behind a collection of jagged rocks. The darkness of the cave would make it hard for him to spot me.
Arnold inched towards the back slowly. His eyes darted in a flurry of directions. He was...scared. He peeked his head around, sighing. A sigh of relief.
Like a tiger stalking its prey, I pounced on him the moment he lowered his guard. I wrapped one muscular arm around his neck. With the other, I stripped him from his rifle.
"Get off...of me you...stupid Nigger!" he uttered with what little breath he had. I shoved the rifle's barrel onto the roof of his mouth. Arnold's face grew pale.
I pulled the trigger. BANG! A soupy mess of bloody flesh and brains was left on the stony cave floor.
I returned outside to the Maryland cold. Ford stood a good distance from the entrance, waiting. His rifle twirled loosely in his hand.
"I suppose he's dead then?" he smiled nastily.
I pointed my rifle at him tensely, but I couldn't speak back. He marched towards me. My body began to shake uncontrollably.
"Master told me to bring you back alive," he cackled, "But I can always tell him that this is how I found you."
I slumped to the floor. I felt neither the warmth of blood nor the cold of the snow.
"The bullets we shot you with were covered with a strong poison...one that would kill an average man in minutes. But you, you're special! You all are! It's a shame, though, that for such amazing physical specimens you lack the brains to shut up and listen."
Ford wrenched my rifle from my arm's and aimed it towards me.
"If only you'd been smart enough to run." He pulled the trigger.
Or rather, no bullet's came out of it. The rifle, in its entirety, exploded. The impact was jarring, breaking Ford's arms and shoulders. Sharp pieces of plastic dug deep into his face, piercing his skull.
"AAAGGHHH!" he howled in agony, gripping his face. He fell to the ground, flopping around like a fish out of water, until finally, he was dead.
If he'd been smart enough to check the barrel of the rifle before firing, he'd have saw them. All four of them.
Four pieces of cotton inside of it, jamming the gun.
By now I'd lost all my senses to the fast-acting poison. I couldn't hear, see or feel. But I could think. I could pray.
I prayed for Maribelle's safety. I prayed that my child would grow up healthy and happy. I prayed for myself; That I would be able to meet my mother in Heaven.
Fortune favours the brave. Her words were never more false.
The brave get killed.