I try not to think of that morning in May of this year of 1851. It is muddled in my brain anyway, maybe because I choose to leave it muddled. I did not see it all, I tell myself. I was upstairs in my room in our rambling white farmhouse, sent upstairs by Papa because I sassed Aunt Susan Elizabeth. She was Papa’s aunt, getting on in years and in grouchiness.
She drove me to distraction and I would have given anything to be away from her, from that house, yes, even from Papa, who had few words of cheerfulness for me since the day I was born and fewer yet since he’d become involved with his abolitionist doings, which seemed like forever now.
He went about those doings with an obsession.
There was always a quilt on the front wooden fence to show we were a safe house for runaways. I know because I put them there for Aunt Susan Elizabeth.
We had five of those quilts, and the ones on the fence were constantly changed.
The quilts said things.
Each one had a different message. What, I don’t know because I could never quite learn the differences. It had to do with the square knots left visible on the front, which Aunt Susan Elizabeth said was usually the sign of shoddy workmanship.
But not with these quilts. These square knots were left on the front on purpose.
The quilts each had a set number of square knots. She must have explained to me a dozen times the many things those knots meant. But I never got it. Which made her call me “dense.”
I hated those quilts because I was always having to work on one. That morning I was working on a wagon wheel pattern, which Aunt Susan Elizabeth said signaled the slaves to pack everything that would go into a wagon or that could be used in transit.
“Why can’t they just be told?” I asked her. It wasn’t so much the words I said as how I said them.
That’s when Papa sent me to my room.
“No soul,” he said to me, “you’ve got no soul. For this your mother gave her life when you were born. No soul.”
He’d been saying a lot of things like that to me lately, because I refused to get involved with his abolitionist doings. I couldn’t understand him risking his life for all those negroes who came to our door in the middle of the night looking like something the cat dragged in.
Two nights before he’d taken in two runaways from the Harris plantation in Buckstown, Maryland, a state part slave and part free.
They’d had enough of old Mr. Josiah Harris’s cruelty.
We live in the small town of Christiana, Pennsylvania, on the Maryland border. My name is Cecelia McGill. Papa’s name is John. Runaway negroes know we’re a station on the Underground Railroad.
It was a bright morning, about ten o’clock. I was sitting on my bed, wondering how long I’d have to stay there, when I heard horses ride up. I went to look out the window.
It was Mr. Harris and he had his two mangy sons with him. I pushed the window open so I could hear. Harris was waving around a paper, which apparently was some kind of a writ. “Signed under the new Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, McGill,” I heard him yell. “Gives me the right to cross over into another state and pursue and take back the runaways.”
My father said something; I didn’t hear what. The Harrises got off their horses and headed for the house. I heard my father tell them to wait outside, then he must have come in and gone to the secret hiding place under the parlor and brought the slaves up, because he’s nothing if not a law-abiding man, my father. He brought them outside.
Then more men rode up. I recognized the Wallers, Quakers from the area. More trouble. I don’t know why people have to force their beliefs on everybody else, why they just can’t practice them and leave others alone.
Right off the Quakers started with the thees and thous, challenging the legality of the whole thing. An argument started. It got loud. Soon there was pushing and shoving. One of the Harrises ?red his gun in the air. The horses jumped and got antsy. Then more guns went off.
It all happened very fast. And of a sudden I saw my papa fall on the ground and the Harrises mount their horses and gallop away and the Quakers mount their horses, and for all their thees and thous pay no attention to my father but take the slaves on the horses behind them and whisk them off. Likely in the direction of the next safe house and on to Canada.
And I, who have no soul, went downstairs to see if my father was alive or dead.
Copyright © 2007 by Ann Rinaldi
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