Diary of a Runaway Slave
by Christopher J Calhoun
Johnson Wilfred had just arrived to the Cottonfield Plantation. The carriage they rode in was dark, breathless, no air had been circulating for what had seemed like days. He had no idea where he was, where he'd be, or what world lied above the covered sheets blockading him from light. All he could hear were the murmuring breaths of the other slaves tucked together tightly, one-by-one gasping for air, for breath, for freedom. One slave had hummed a tune he recognized before. Another wallowed in her own sobs. And the other prayed inside his silenced mutters, spitting mumbles that only sounded like baby whispers. One sound he heard quite well was the scowling voices coming from the outside. They were yelling: "Quiet in there, you slaves! I said quiet!"
He wished those sounds were never given voices.
"Is that all of 'em?" a voice echoed moments later.
The carriage slowed, and the movement faded. Johnson opened his eyelids, for he too had known that they had finally come to a complete stop.
"I thank so. Why dun't ya check, Rump?" the other voice suggested.
The thick white sheet was then lifted, exposing the four slaves into broad daylight. Johnson immediately shut his eyelids, compacting them so that the forced sunlight wouldn't burn his pupils. The other slaves shook in fear, their hands quivering to every step they detected. They knew nothing would happen if they didn't move.
Rump encircled the slaves inside the carriage, snickering to himself along the way. "Open them eyes! All of yas!" The slaves, chained together by hands and feet, followed the white man's order, and opened their eyes.
What Johnson had seen wasn't much of a surprise to him; the mudded terrain deeply engrained with their tears, their blood, their sweat, their cries behind them, the green grasses trickling their own tears beside the cracked grounds, the flying crickets singing their early morning songs, the same songs Johnson had recognized the others sing. Those were the sounds he listened closely to. And he ignored every other sound, every stare, every smirk, every grunt those white men had given him. He already knew; this would be the first of many of those sounds and stares and smirks and grunts.
"Git up!" Rump commanded, the four slaves rummaging their way out of the carriage, and onto the cold, hard ground. The chains shackling them together were heavier than them, and once Johnson fell headfirst to the ground, he heaved as much weight as he could to stand. His muscles tensed, his body shivered, and his legs wobbled until they lifted him, fighting him against those silver rusted chains. He stood, no breath inside him. The other slaves had to do the same.
Rump and that other white man giggled their socks off, and the other white man wearing the tan cowboy hat said, "you slaves ain't gon' last a day out here!" Their laughs continued, almost knocking Johnson back down to the ground. This is wut it's like to be a slave, he kept thinking, all becuz I'm black.
The overseer of the plantation was riding a black stallion just ahead. He came in steadfast, halting his stallion only steps away from the chains secured together on the ground. He leaped off his galloping stallion, his white suit quite stunning in the cool breeze. He removed his bright beige hat off his head, and motioned towards Rump and the other white man. "Is they all here?" he asked, his voice muffling inside the threads of his long gray beard, it was hard for any of them to detect his words.
"Yus sir, Rutherford Simmons, sir. They all here. All four of 'em. Juss like you asked," said Rump.
Rutherford snapped his fingers, signaling his stallion to follow him. He examined the slaves clumped together in a line, each one shivering in fear as the next. But Johnson remained still.
"Yep. This all of 'em. Now when I say your name, I want you to step forward! Don't do nothin' else, don't say anything more!" Rutherford scanned all four cowering slaves, their robes torn, their teeth crooked, their freedom stripped. Rutherford retrieved his long, elongated whip, beating into the ground. Johnson had already known; this was a fair warning.
"Nanna Belle!" he screamed.
Nanna Belle was the slave all the way to the left. She was the one in worn-out robes, an old rag tied around her puffed black hair, and thick bare feet attached to the ground. "Ohhh, Jesus, help me, oh help me Lord Jesus! Save me Lord Jesus! Ohhhh, Lord Jesus!" she screamed and hollered, Rutherford lashing the whip at her.
"She pregnant," Rump whispered.
"Hush all that yammerin', woman! You here to work, not to sing! Now cut all that 'Jesus' talk. This ain't home!" Rutherford screamed.
Johnson wished it had been "home."
"Burt!" the overseer screamed, as the slave with the skinny legs and bony arms stood forward. His ribcage looked so barren, it was like looking at a fractured lung.
"Dorbin!" came the scream again. The slave with the rug beard standing next to Johnson stepped forward, lugging the chains with him.
"And... let's see here... Johnson!" Rutherford suddenly shrieked.
Johnson stood forward, keeping a still face, and a still eye. He made sure to never let the slavemaster intimidate him in any way. Rutherford motioned around the slaves, examining their every body part. "Yep," he finally said to Rump and the other white man, "they all right. Well you slaves, looks like it's time for work!" The three white men jerked the chains forward, dragging them towards the plantation. As Johnson stumbled over the sobbing grasses, stepping over every sharp blade his foot stepped on, all he could think about were those sounds the crickets were making, and the winds. How smooth they were. How free they were. I hope the wind of freedom blows in this direction, was his only thought.
Sometime in eighteenfifty, Day two
Stealin' them papers from Bethel's writin' desk was no easy task, no. Already mah second day on da plantation, and I'm already gettin' them cotton fields outside. I'm writin' in the dark where no one cud see me, nex to da brokin lite outside da farmhouse where we's asleepin'. Nobody know I lernt to read n' write. Da ole muck Clyde Owens neva' knew I cud lern, n' he didn't botha teachin' no one. Befo I wus sold here n' Saint Louis, there I wuz livin' on da Owens Plantation n' Kentucky, mindin' mah own bis'ness. I wuz pickin' cottons til mah hands dried up. Then Clyde forced me to tear away dem letters n' mails the plantation wud get from da Northens. He tole me to tear em' up n' shred 'em! His woman Missus Lillie Owens wuz too darn lazy to do it, n' he didn't want no houseslaves workin' da work we fieldslaves had to work, so I shredded n' shredded n' shredded as part of mah punishment. But Clyde wuz dumb, heck! He wuz dumba than all us slaves put togetha! All dem free papers he wanted me to rip apart so that da slaves wudn't escape wuz exactly how I lernt to read! Three years of rippin' up innocence n' rippin' apart papers that made slaves free. When no one wuz lukin', or when they all forgot bout me, I wud read da letters to mahself, practice writin' with a stick and da ground, tracin' letters as best I could. I copied every one, readin' them to mahself, until I had lernt da al-phu-bet, n' then I wrote on da letters, copyin' words one by one. And I did this fo' three years! Three years! But now they didn't sold me to da Cottonfield Plantation all da way in Saint Louis [I knows we in Saint Louis when Rump said we was in Saint Louis durin' da ride here.] All da slaves n' mastas I knew in Kentucky is gone, mah home gone, mah peoples, gone. I wuz separated from mah Mama when I wuz two. She wuz a house slave workin' fo' da masta, but sumone tole me da masta wuz mah fatha! I knew that wuz a lie! But I had cause so much trouble back in them ole-den days, I was sold to another plantation befo da Owens one where I stayed fo' ova fifteen years. I was only sold when I wuz seven. Now, here I am, workin' da fields cause I'm too dark fo' anything else. I dun stole sum pens n' sum paper, n' I gots them hidden in a sack I keep under da hay in da farmhouse. No one ever luk up n' there. All I gots to do is keep stealin, n' maybe Ima find mah way outta here. Them winds be a blowin'! ~ Johnson Wilfred, entry numba 2561.
Sometime in eighteenfifty, Day three.
I found sum time to write as I hide in da shed next to da window. Da food here stank, n' I dun want no mo' liver bones, mush or any of that stuff the slavemasta keep feedin' me. This plantation much worse than da one back in Kentucky. They have me pickin' cotton afta cotton afta cotton, work afta work afta work, n' da people here ain't da brightest, neither. Sum slaves so dumb it take all they wit n' soul juss to avoid etting' beat. Nanna Belle n' Burt already been beat six times, n' they just got here! I hasn't got beat yet, but knowin' the masta, he gon' find a way to beat me. He gon' git me! He gon'... He gon' git me!
Uh! Uh-oh! Here he a comin'. Ima try to write later, but I gots ta go. Da sun mite go down but Ima find mah freedom. I know them winds be a blowin'!
He had no time to finish his entry. The slavemaster was banging at the shed doors, wondering who was there. "Who in here?!" he yelled, "is anybody in here? Come out come out if yuh in here now!" Johnson slipped his pads of paper and his fountain pens inside the sack he had stolen, and shoved the sack behind the bunches of haystacks. He darted to the front of the barred shed, removed the bar, and quickly opened the shed doors. Rutherford was in his white suit, reddened with anger.
"Sorry masta. I's wuz juss cleanin' up da mess you wanted me to clean," Johnson begged.
"I bet you was, Johnson," was the response, "now git inside da house for some dinna. We servin' mush, today!"
With that said, the overseer led him to the farmhouse where all the other slaves sat close together, munching away on any leftover bits of food they could reach. Mush, that appeared to be a form of animal vomit, was shoved into Johnson's hands. He sat near the corner, swallowing the mush to himself. Them winds be a blowin'. Them winds be a blowin'. Just as he finished the last of his mush, a loud hoarse erupted throughout the plantation. The slaves turned their heads to each other, wondering what it could be.
"Don't mind 'em!" the slaveowners yelled, "juss another slave gittin' beat!"
"What is that?" Johnson asked Bucky, the skinny slave sitting next to him.
"Oh, iz juss Sugah gettin' beat again. Wut else is new..."
"AHHHHH!" Pause. "YAH!" Pause. "WHAAAAAAH!" Those were the only sounds Johnson could hear. He emptied the rest of them from his head, pretending to listen, pretending to relate, pretending that he was getting beat instead. Sugar was known as the biggest "trouble makin' slave" in the entire plantation. If anyone got beat on a daily basis, it had to be Sugar. He was considered a "youngen," but was always causing mischief somehow. Today, he was seen trying to make another escape. Only this escape cost him a hundred lashings rather than the regular fifty.
"That's why you can't run away from here," Bucky whispered, "they always out to git you. Masta don' want you runnin'. He want you workin'. Workin' til you can't work no more! Then he gon' kill ya! And eat ya! Aw Lord why!" Johnson only listened to those words. And, somehow, those words were dissolved from his mind, because all he could think of was the wind, and how graceful it sounded, how soft it flowed, how free it was.
Johnson couldn't survive off the mush they fed him. He knew no one could. So, he waited until the very heart of night, and did it. Inside he went into the Simmons home, the bright moon lighting all the stars and vast skies. He could hear the snores rumbling from Bethel and Rutherford from the master bedroom. He carefully snuck past their room, tiptoeing his feet across the hardwood floors, careful not to step on a single crack. Though he could only see darkness, it was all he needed to see. The kitchen window gave away some light penetrating into the Simmons' kitchen. He slowly crept to the cabinets, opening every cabinet until he found what he was looking for. "Here we go," he whispered, retrieving the wine bottles and the loaves of bread and the blocks of packaged cheese just sitting there, waiting to be feasted. He stashed the supplies into his giant sack, trying his best not to say a word. His heart pounded when he heard footsteps moving up and down the top floor. Must be the houseslaves. He closed all the cabinets shut, and snuck out the back door once the noise had ceased, hauling the rather large sack behind him. "Idiots," he said to himself. He knew today was the only day of the week the overseer didn't have "guards" patrolling the plantation. They too have to rest once in a while. Too bad they chose a bad day to rest. Johnson had returned to the farmhouse, only to find some of the slaves sleeping. One had been awake this entire time. It was Sugar. He gasped once he found Johnson creeping along the side of the farmhouse, careful enough not to awake the other slaves.
"Johnson, what you doin', boy?! You cud git killed!" Sugar warned, as Johnson hid the sack and returned to his sleeping spot.
"I know," Johnson whispered back to him, "but I won't."
"If you say so," Sugar knew it was no use arguing. It was late, and his voice was loud enough to wake the entire plantation.
"Go on to sleep, Sugah," Johnson told him, "we gon' git there soon enough... Soon enough..."
The next morning halted when old Rutherford brought out the whip, whacking any slave he spotted. "Call 'em all to the front!" he yelled at the slavemasters, "call all of 'em!" I wanna know who dun it!" Every slave was forced, dragged, and carried from wherever they stood to the front of the plantation. Johnson stood next to Sugar and Burt, but no one said anything. No heads turned anywhere. The helpless slaves remained in a clump, waiting for what their overseer would say next.
Bethel dashed outside to witness the hullabaloo, the children beside her. They remained secluded at the porch, while Rutherford walked back and forth, whipping slaves as he pleased. When all of the slaves were rounded together, he shouted, "today I found mah cabinet open, and all mah bottles gone! Someone dun stole mah bottles! Who dun it? Which one of you slaves dun it? Answer me this instant!"
No slave dared to look at one another, or exhale for that matter. They retained their silence, keeping their voices to themselves.
"So nobody know? Nobody wanna answer me, huh? Well, all of yas cud git whipped! It don't botha me, but we gon' find out who dun it! And we gon' find out soon!" Rutherford then circled a few slaves, heading towards Johnson. When he approached Johnson, he slowly leaned in, eyeing Johnson square in his pupil. "I'll ask again. Did you take them bottles, Johnson?" Rutherford whispered in his ear.
"No, masta. I didn't."
"You betta hope you didn't. Yo ass bet not be lyin' to me, boy. Else you can expect a hundurt whippins comin' your way."
"No, masta. I didn't," he repeated. "Well, then. Movin' on." He asked Sugar the same question. Of course, he received the same answer. Johnson couldn't stop sweating. The hot sun and the blazing heat and the scorching winds and the zesty winds were all starting to get to him. They were starting to get into his head, into his mind. He felt his legs swivel and his head shaking and his fingers breaking and his heart pounding and his lungs pouncing. There was no way to stop this. He never thought guilt would ever feel this way.
Sometime in eighteenfifty, day Four,
They on to me! Ohhh they on to me! They gon' git me! They gon' find me, they gon' get me, they gon' get me! I cant let 'em get me Lord I cant! Hundert lashins finna come mah way n' ain't no way I cud stop 'em! I cant let 'em git me! The white masta finna keel me I need to run up outta here! I need to leave and neva come back! Oh Lord! Please help me Lord please! I cant stay here under this sun doin' all this work! Please find me, oh please help me! I is out here writin' alone in da dark hopin' no slavemasta find me ova here but they finna catch me! I know them winds be a blowin'. I know them winds... they be a blowin'. Cause I cud feel 'em. I cud feel 'em blowin' n' blowin' n' blowin'...
~ Johnson Wilfred, entry numba 2563.
Farmer Moe arrived to the Cottonfield Plantation every Wednesday to deliver local produce from his vegetable farm. Rutherford Simmons was always expecting him, and would greet him in the afternoon hours. Johnson was carrying a barrel of freshly-picked cotton to the shed as the last shipment of fresh produce had been shipped. He walked past the two men talking when he happened to hear the farmer say, "yeh. I ship to them Free states over this here Mississippi. Yep. Them Free states! Just yonder the Mississippi."
That was all he could hear as he kept walking. But then he remembered an old map he ripped into shreds back when he was in Kentucky, and he remembered how close the Mississippi was from here. Real close. Freedom was literally footsteps away.
He delivered the last of the cotton that needed delivering, and hurried back to his shed. The slaves had received a short break (the only "break" they receive throughout the day.) All the other slaves were getting their monthly supply of water over at the water pump next to the plantation home, so Johnson had some time to scribble in his pads of paper.
Sometime in eighteenfifty, Day ten I think,
I cant take it no mo'! I is tired of workin'! The slavemasta havin' me work n' work' n' work', pickin' n' pickin' n' pickin', n' all I get is lashins every day! I is tired, n' they finna catch me soon! I ate all da cheese n' shared da wine with da otha slaves at night, but now they on to me! I gots ta get up on outta here! Tonite I is gonna escape, I is gonna run away, n' I is gonna follow them winds that be a blowin', cause them winds that be a blowin' finna blow me right on to mah freedom, right to da Promised Land, right to da Land wheres I belong. Free states, heres I come! I is comin' to ya!
~ Johnson Wilfred, entry numba 2564.
Sugar suspected Johnson was up to something. When the evening call was made, and the slaves were dragged back into the farmhouse, the lights turned off, and it was time for bed. The slavemasters placed chains over the farmhouse at night so that no one could escape, and since Master Rutherford discovered his goods were stolen, the guards were now placed on duty every single night. Johnson knew there was no escape now. No escape, until Sugar gently tapped his shoulder, making him budge.
"How you know I wasn't sleepin'?" Johnson whispered.
"Cause you neva sleep," was the answer.
"Wut is it?"
"You wanna know how to git rid of them chains on da door?"
"How?" Johnson asked.
"Alls yuh gotta do is tug on da right, n' they fall right off. They ain't even tied right. I messed with 'em tons of times."
"Why you wanna help me?" Johnson wondered, both of them headed over to the haystack where the sack was kept.
"Cause yous da only one who could sneak into da masta house," Sugar answered, helping him carry the sack, "n' yous da only one wit guts."
"Well I'm is escapin'. To freedom."
"Escapin'?!" Sugar muttered, Johnson motioning for him to stay silent.
"Yeh. Escapin'. I's gettin' outta here. I dunno if I is comin' back, either."
"But the guards out there they gon' keel you!" Sugar warned.
"I know. But they sleepin' probably. Long as I don't make no noise, I's fine."
"But they gon' try to find you. They gon' fine you! Yous gon' git killed out there!"
"Betta than bein' stuck up in here gettin' whipped all da time," Johnson murmured back.
Sugar couldn't say anything after that. He knew it was true; escaping was better than being enslaved. "Well, if yous wanna escape, guess yuh betta."
"Gonna miss ya, Sugah."
Sugar nodded his head. Johnson smiled. He had realized that that was the first time he had smiled in such a long time. Just the thought of freedom gave him a reason to smile.
The plan commenced. Sugar returned to sleep, promising him not to tell anyone else about his escape (though they'd eventually find out soon enough.) Johnson gave a slight tug on the chains, jerking them back and forth until the chains were released, and fell to the ground. Johnson gained enough control of them to lay them down so that they wouldn't wake anyone. He slowly opened the farmhouse doors, turned in the directions the winds were blowing, and ran into the night.
A piece of bread, a pad of paper, some run-down fountain pens, and the sack on his back. That was all he carried with him. That, and the torn robes he wore for months. He darted past the sleeping guards, not caring where his next step landed, or where his next step was. He trotted past the large white home, into the vast cotton fields, and finally into the wheat fields beyond the plantation. He knew he had escaped the plantation in just minutes. There was no one after him yet, and when he referenced the North Star as his directed path, he knew he was going the right way. Escaping the plantation was no problem. He knew escaping slavery would be.
He sprinted as fast as he could, darting further and further into the wheat fields, not even daring to look back. He had no time to look back behind him. He needed to be as vigilant as possible; for another plantation owner could catch him. The cool winds grew colder as he kept running. He could feel their harsh chills, their penetrating rush, their hard sounds. He knew he needed to find shelter, and find it fast.
The white men were up early hunting for possible runaway slaves. Johnson was aware of this just as much as the whites were. As he continued running through the wheat fields, he could feel his energy depleting, his body declining, his sweat deteriorating. He slowed and slowed, almost to the point where he was now walking. The howling sounds of nature in the night frightened him, causing him to squeal on the inside. The mysterious owls and the wailing crickets and the hissing bees were all cautioning him to run back. But he knew he couldn't. There was no turning back now. It was either freedom, or death. Johnson had escaped the wheat fields, and managed to scramble through two wheat fields and a massive cotton field beyond the Simmons' plantation. He had to have passed at least five other plantations before reaching the forest. He was glad to rest in the forest, and he got a sense of being led in the right direction, because he heard steps scamper through the forest a few feet away from him. I didn't know slave huntin' began this early, he thought to himself. Apparently, it did.
He found a cave to sleep in behind a pile of giant bushes as the morning sun peaked at the horizon. "If I sleep during the daytime and run at night, maybe they won't catch me," he whispered to himself, finding a small rock to rest his head on, and somewhat comfortable grounds to sleep on. In fact, these grounds were the best grounds he slept on in years. The next day he awoke to feet treading this way and that, heading past the giant bushes surrounding the hidden cave. The afternoon was alive and well, and Johnson cornered himself into the darkest part of the cave, in case a white would take a peek inside.
"No slaves over here," he overheard a white man say.
"None over here either," another man said.
"Hear about the one who escaped last night? There's a huge reward for that one," the first said.
"Yeah, that's the slave I'm lookin' for," the second said, and off they were, trotting through the depths of the forest.
When it was safe to come out, Johnson carefully glanced around him, making sure no traps had been set, no ropes were in place, no persons were there. All clear. He decided to wait until late night before he would journey into the forest. The cave would become his home for now. A home away from home. Heck: A home he could consider home. At least this home was free for him to stay.
As Johnson walked back into the cave, his foot stumbled upon something. Dirt had covered what appeared to be a posting of some kind. Johnson scraped the excess dirt from the posting, and read what it had said.
NOTICEThere was a picture of him posted on the advertisement as well. Not even a day had passed, and he was wanted. He was a dead man running. A dead man walking. A dead man existing. They were already after him. They wanted him, dead or alive. They were coming for him. They were closing him in. Now, it was either freedom or death.
Late night approached, and Johnson was on the run again. He felt his body lift up from the ground, soaring high in the sky, approaching the place he called the Promised Land. He was almost there, he could feel it! He had to keep running, keep chasing his freedom. There was definitely no turning back now. If only he'd known how much danger he was really in. Johnson didn't let his feet stop moving. He made them sprint, sprint, and sprint. He did his best to adjust his eyes through the night. They were used to the darkness. Until suddenly, he bumped into something. No. Someone. CRASH. He fell onto the ground, his sack with him. The other voice grunted and grumbled, adjusting his eyes to Johnson.
"I is sorry, please dun hurt meh!" Johnson begged, "I's juss a slave, nothin' more. Don't keel meh, please!"
"Shhh! You's cud die out here admittin' yous a slave!" the other voice replied, both of them standing to their feet.
"Who you be?" Johnson wondered.
"I is Ronnie. Ronnie Smith. I's a slave too. A fugitive from da Uppa West Plantation."
"I'm Johnson. I'm from da Cottonfield one."
"Oh I heard of that one. Sum of our folk wuz sold there. Them Simmons folk own too many slaves!" Ronnie explained, "they got juss about every one of 'em here in Saint Louis!"
Johnson could tell Ronnie was a few years younger than he was, but not by much. "Was you runnin' to freedom too?"
"Yus I wuz. I's headed to the Mississippi. I's heard we ain't too far from a Free state."
"I's heard that too!" Johnson said.
"Wells, we betta go togetha if we's plan on gettin' outta here soon."
Both Ronnie and Johnson grabbed for the same sack on the ground. Only, there were two sacks there!
"You's got a sack too?" Ronnie wondered.
"Yes. I keep my paper and fountain pen there," Johnson answered.
"Wells, alls I got is some clothes from da clothin' store I stole from up town. I wuz gonna disguise mahself so that the slavemasta wouldn't recognize me. Now mah charges are double from yestaday. I can't get caught now."
"Me neither," Johnson said.
"Hey, can you read?" Ronnie asked him.
"Yes, I can."
"And write?" v"Yessum."
"Well I's be a slavemasta mahself! You can write us a free letta then! No white masta gonna mess with us then... As long as they ain't seen da ads for us! N' wes can disguise ourselves if we needs to! Yeh! We can be one of those merchants yuh see runnin' round here hustlin' for they money! We gon' be outta here in no time! Juss you wait!" Ronnie explained.
"Gewd idea!" Johnson agreed, "but first, we need to find somewhere to hide."
The two of them trudged along, dodging every big tree in their way, crossing over every fallen branch, and keeping their eyes open for any white slave hunters in sight. None so far.
They found a small forest den surrounded by a wide array of towering trees. The sun started peeking in, its bright rays warming the forest. Johnson had awoke early, and could clearly see Ronnie for the first time. There were immense scars wrapped around his body, each mark as painful to see as the next. They were bloody, and parts of his skin peeled all the way down to his legs, each scar trickling lines of blood everywhere. He tried ignoring the bloody scars on Ronnie's bare back, and found some time to write.
Sometime in eighteenfifty, Day Eleven,
I juss met another fugitive slave. His name Ronnie Smith, n' he a runaway juss like me. We both runaways, and we runnin' to ours freedom. Heck. Ronnie probably saved mah life today. Cause I is runnin' n' runnin' n' runnin' n' runnin' but if I git caught wit no fake clothes, I cud best forget it. Alls we gotta do is keep runnin', n' maybe we can catch da Mississippee soon. I knows he wanna dress up as murchints or somethin' like that. In case we git caught, we ain't even gotta worry bout it. Lord knows I'm happy bout mah freedom. I is finna be free, n' I can't wait. I hope one day they abolish slavery, cause it juss ain't right wut they dun do to our black folk out here. Black folk they shouldnt be treated like pieces of dirt, just stepped on, bounced on, toppled all over, controlled n' cant say two words. It juss ain't right, n' it juss ain't fair. I ain't no slave, n' I ain't nobody worker. I is a American. N' I should be treated like one. Hopefully one day them winds be a blowin' fasta, so they can take me to them Promised Lands ova there, where they is Americans. Cause I wanna be free!
~ Johnson Wilfred, entry numba 2565.
Ronnie had woke just as Johnson placed his pieces of paper back into the sack. Ronnie stood, almost motionless at first. He rubbed his eyes, and reached for the clothes inside his sack. He pulled out a hat, an oversized overcoat, two pieces of overalls, and another hat.
"This all I got. Hope yous can fit it. Wuz all I found." Ronnie threw an overall set and a hat in his direction. He was already busy putting on the clothes.
Johnson tried on the overalls. Although they were a bit too tight, they would have to do. Ronnie placed the hat over his head, and then the oversized overcoat. The overcoat and hat covered much of his face, and the overcoat was longer than the average sleeves. Within a matter of minutes, they were dressed and ready to go. The sunrise had barely taken place.
"They won't be able to see mah skin color with this ovacoat. That's why I stole it!" Ronnie mentioned.
"Wait! If they see you and me, they gonna see mah skin color. How we supposed to fool them now?"
"I gots an idea. Just write the letta."
Johnson did as he was told. Without saying another word, he motioned for the pad of paper inside the sack, retrieved a working fountain pen, and prepared to write. Ronnie had given him the words to write. Luckily, Johnson had remembered how the free papers were written long ago when he would shred them all day and night. What he wrote looked something like this:
Deed of Freedom
Johnson actually thanked his previous master Clyde Owens for helping him construct such a freedom letter. The only way he remembered words such as "proclamation," "emancipation," "aforesaid," and "transcribed" was from countless hours of shredding, his mind piecing together every word that has been broken apart. He had guessed any date, making sure the date had actually passed. The address he used was an actual address he remembered shredding long ago. In fact, many letters he received came from that same plantation. Good thing he remembered it.
"On we go!" Ronnie said, once the letter was completely.
"But wait! What if wes git caught?" Johnson wondered.
Ronnie snatched the forged letter and said, "don't you worry. I got all this under control. Now we betta get goin'! This overcoat is heavy!"
Off they were, carrying their sacks and their old robes and their papers and their dignities. They were on their way to the Mississippi.
They passed through forest after forest, hiding in tall bushes to avoid slaveowners, careful not to step on any small round bullets that were booby traps, or make any sudden noises that could attract potential slaveowners. They ran and they ran, eventually passing a few small plantations here and there, and arriving to a local port. They hid behind a tall barrel, watching the men load boxes and barrels onto various steamboats. The sun was setting by now, and Johnson could feel the cool breeze wafting in his direction. The winds were still blowing, and when he took a breath of fresh air, he could almost smell freedom for the first time. Water never smelled so good as it did right now.
"We's gon' need a raft," Ronnie whispered.
"How we pose to git one?" Johnson wondered.
"Follow my lead." With that said, Ronnie dragged Johnson, tugging on his ear as they headed up the port, walking into a local boat shop. The owner had turned around, only to see a man with a big oversized coat wearing a big hat shove a slave down to the ground, beckoning him to remain silent. The owner of the shop could only see the man's eyes.
"What can I do for you sir?" the owner asked, Ronnie kicking Johnson's sides.
"Quiet, slave! Quiet!" Ronnie yelled, as Johnson stopped his squirms. "I need a raft to return this fugitive where he belong. All the way in Kentucky. Here are his papers." Ronnie lowered his voice, attempting to sound as "proper" as he could. Ronnie placed the papers on the counter, and the owner with his long grey beard and fat belly skimmed the words on the page.
"It says here he's a free man."
"Not here it don't. I need to take him back to his plantation. Then they can decide if he free or not." The owner gave Ronnie a skeptical look. He saw Johnson squirming over to the side as Ronnie gave him another kick to the side. "Okay. It's gonna cost ya."
"This should cover it," Ronnie quickly said, retrieving a pair of golden jewels he stole from a jewelry store the same night he stole the clothes from the clothing store.
The owner accepted, and agreed to meet them at the dock. Ronnie dragged Johnson towards the dock, and their raft awaited them, a labeled PAID sign attached to it. "There you gentlemen go. Have a nice day."
"You too," Ronnie told him, "now get! Get inside that raft!"
Both Ronnie and Johnson entered the raft, ducked their heads, and sailed across the Mississippi. The river was bigger than they expected, and it took more paddling than they thought it would. The current was traveling against their intended direction, so it took even more energy from the both of them. At least they didn't have to worry about passing boats, or other steamboats with whites who would question them if they didn't have the PAID sign.
After what had seemed like hours, they crossed the gigantic river, ending up on the other side of singing green grasses, even though it was now completely dark. They walked a few feet beyond the river, and saw a sign that said "ILLINOIS: FREE STATE" up ahead.
"We did it! We made it, Johnson! We free men!" Ronnie cheered, "hope I didn't hurt you too much there! Pretendin' to be a slaveowner's no fun!"
"The plan worked! We made it! The winds a blowin' led us right to freedom! N' don't worry... I knew you had to," Johnson replied, the both of them running as far from the river as possible, and venturing into Illinois.
The two of them find a local village to stay in the next day. Johnson could hardly believe that a white man was serving him a beer. He couldn't believe that the other whites (and even free blacks) greeted him with a genuine smile on their face, with no intent to hurt or harm them. He couldn't believe how nice they were, how sincere they were. He couldn't believe that this was what freedom really felt like.
"Glad I metcha, Johnson. We both coulda been dead by now," Ronnie told him, "gewd thing yous can read n' write. They can't git us up here. We nice n' safe in a Free state."
"Yeah...Guess we are. Never gotta work in them fields again!" Both of them laughed together. They knew it was true: they wouldn't have to work in the fields as long as they lived. Once the waiter had served him a beer, Johnson got a chance to write in his diary once more.
Twentyfourth of April, eighteenfifty,
I finally know what day it is! I escaped to freedom, and I never felt better! The slavemasta thought he could hold me down forever, but he wuz wrong! Hahah! He wuz wrong! Now I's free, n' I's be free forever! As for Ronnie n' me, we might go our separate ways, we might not. We up in a village right now where no slavemastas are, n' they can't git us up here. Not in no Freedom state. Anyways, I never felt freedom like this. Somethin' bout it smell so different up here, feel so different, is so different. I feel like I's a changed man, like I could do whatever I want! I ain't gotta have the burden of the white man tellin' me this or tellin' me that or whippin' me til my back bleed dry. I cud juss walk, n' I'm free! I cud smell da winds blowin', n' I'm free! I cud blink, n' I'm free! But sum o' mah brothas, sistas, mah cusins n' family back in Kentucky n' wherever else ain't free. Mah heart goes out to them, n' I'm prayin' to God that they all right, that they fine too, that the winds' a blowin' will lead them to freedom, right to the Promised Land wes Negros belong. One day I hope wes all find our Promised Lands, and wes all follow them winds' o' freedom, cause they do be a blowin'...
~ Johnson Wilfred, entry numba 2566.