Voices in the Walls 24

Chapter four, continued

“Don’t need papers, Mister,” Ben Sayer replied. “This is a free state and I’m a freeborn man.”

“How do I know that?”

I was getting pretty irritated by their high handed manner. I said, “I’ll vouch for him, or you can ask Rachel Pike in that house up there. She knows him well enough to hire him to build a barn for her.”

Sheepskin Jacket scowled and said, “That lying abolitionist! I wouldn’t believe a word she said.”

I took a sharp step forward and reached up for the reins of his horse with my right hand, moving up close on the side where his revolver was holstered. “I don’t know who you think you are,” I snapped, “but if you want to keep all your teeth in your mouth, you will think twice before you call a lady a liar.”

That made him hot and I watched him like a snake, ready to pull him down off his horse if he made a move toward that gun. True, I was shy of sixteen, (or maybe just shy of seventeen, I haven’t decided yet) but I was man-tall and there are some things you just don’t let anyone say about you or your family. Besides, Sheepskin Jacket didn’t look that much older than me.

Behind me, I heard the other rider say, “Meek, you are about to get us in trouble over nothing. Let it go.”

Meek looked down at me with anger, but he only said, “Let go of the reins.” When I did, he jerked his horse around and kicked it into a gallop from a standing start.

I turned to the second man and said, “Who are you and what is all this about, anyway?”

This man was older than Meek and more heavily built; he looked slow and friendly, but I wouldn’t have wanted to fight him. I had a feeling he had more staying power than his younger companion. He said, “I’m Joe Bellows and that there was Tom Meeker. We got us a job of returning runaway slaves, and we just got word of a bunch of them moving north in this area. Two men and one woman, all in their twenties, one old woman in her fifties or thereabouts, and a baby. If you see them, send word down to Brannigan’s in Gettysburg and he’ll contact us. We’ll see you get part of the reward.”

I didn’t say yes or no. I just nodded and he took off after Meeker. It might seem odd, but even slave owners didn’t have much use for auctioneers, overseers, or slave catchers.

Ben Sayer looked pale, which was quite a trick because he was one of the blackest black men I had ever seen. He shook his head and said, “You don’t know how close you come to dying right there.”

I said, “Don’t be silly.”

“If I had said what you said, they’d have shot me down where I stood.”

I realized that he was probably right. Being a free black, even in a northern state, was not the same as being really free. I shrugged.

Slowly a grin crept across Ben Sayer’s face. “You still don’t get it, do you? You still thinking like southern gentleman.” There was sarcasm in his voice. “Look at yourself, there in raggedy clothes that don’t fit. You look like white trash. If you had told them you were Representative Thomas Williams boy, they would have laughed at you.”

He was right. I had never thought about what I must look like.

Ben said, “If you want to come on high and mighty with your fine southern pride, you better get your dress clothes back on and carry a gun. Nigras and raggedy whites can’t afford no pride.”

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