Chapter 5: Flight

All of Hannah’s senses were on edge. She smelled the heavy air that mixed nighttime moisture with the smells of the creek, cow manure, and Mama’s biscuits. She heard every creak in the house, as her parents shuffled about and her siblings snored. And then, finally, in the pitch around midnight, she heard the front door creak open.

She rolled over and elbowed Cecilia. “Come on, Cece. Get up. Daddy’s goin now.”

Cecilia had fallen asleep, of course. She yawned and whispered. “Maybe next time, Hannah.”

“Girl, you ain’t gonna be any less tired next time and you already dressed for it. Now get up.”

Cecilia groaned but followed Hannah out of bed. They were both in their day clothes, and they crept to the small window of their room, pausing at any creak to make sure that Calvin didn’t awaken. At the window, Hannah looked at Cecilia and whispered, “You first.”

“You’re older.”

“You need help getting out. You first.”

Cecilia turned to the window, which was already propped open to let in the late summer evening air. Hannah laced her fingers together, held Cecilia’s foot as she stepped into her hands, then helped push her up through the window. Cecilia tumbled with a crunch into dry weeds but made no other sounds. Hannah hoisted herself into the window with her elbows, scooted her body forward, then let herself fall softly to the grass.

“Mama gonna kill us,” Cecilia said.

“Hush,” said Hannah, and she started out to the road behind the house. It was a new moon, so the only lights were the stars. Both girls were barefoot to minimize noise.

“I don’t see nuthin,” Cecilia whispered as they started on the road south toward the bridge.

“I said hush,” said Hannah, and she kept scanning the horizon.

Suddenly, she stopped and stood in place, squinting hard at shadows near the tree line next to the creek.

“They’s three of em,” said Hannah finally.

“Where?” said Cecilia.

“Eastward. By the creek. They’s next to the trees. Daddy’s in front, and they’s three of them followin along.”

“I cain’t see nothin,” said Cecilia. “You makin it up.”

“Hush yo mouth,” Hannah said. “You blind. I sees em and I know it’s Daddy. Now let’s go.”

Hannah led them more quickly now along the road, and she kept her eyes looking east to watch the forms moving along against the backdrop of trees. They were almost impossible to see—Hannah could make them out more by the blobs that took shape then disappeared against the tree line. The girls were two hundred yards from the road when the shapes suddenly moved into the trees and disappeared.

“They ain’t goin to the bridge,” said Hannah.

“I still cain’t see nothin,” said Cecilia.

“They wadin through the creek down where they water the horses and hogs.”

“Why they doin that?” said Cecilia.

“Probably to stay away from the road and bridge where people might see em.”

“Then why we go to the road and bridge?”

“Ain’t no time to explain this to you,” said Hannah. “We gots to get across the bridge and figure out where they’s wind up so we don’t lose em.”

They moved quietly, but quickly, on the pads of their feet and picked their way carefully across the bridge. Then Hannah led Cecilia just off the way and back into the tall grass where she paused to watch. Yes! There they were up ahead, maybe one hundred yards.

“Down to the tree line,” Hannah whispered, and she led Cecilia through the grass to the edges where trees started up. They followed that for a quarter mile until the trees thinned out and converted to a farmer’s field.

“Still don’t know why we doin this,” Cecilia grumbled as they crouched low through the farmer’s field.

“If Daddy gets caught, they could just take him and we’d never see him again,” Hannah hissed.

“And what is we s’posed to do about that?” Cecilia said.

“At least someone’d know who took him so we could find him again. Now hush.”

They fell quiet again as they moved carefully through the bean field, stepping in the dirt and trying to avoid the rows. They could make out the forms of the group ahead, though Hannah wasn’t totally sure how many there were. She knew that the Emmittsburg Road was just up yonder and they would be crossing it soon. She hoped that no one would be passing.

The farmland rose in a swale as it approached the road, and as they drew near, Hannah saw the group ahead disappear as it descended the other side of the swale. She quickened her pace to try to reach the top and regain site of them. Cecilia struggled to keep up, as they scrambled up the gentle slope, a patch of woodlot on their left. When they got to the top, Hannah paused to look out over the dark field. She could see the Round Top mountains another mile off, but she saw nothing moving in the shadows between here and there.

She was about to start down when felt something hard press against her back and heard a voice hiss, “Don’t make no move or I’ll blow you in half.”

She knew the voice and said, with voice trembling, “It’s me, Daddy.”

“Hannah?” the voice said, and the force of it cut like a knife.

“And me too,” said Cecilia next to him.

“What are you . . . does yo mama know . . . of course, she don’t know. But if she go into check on you, she gonna think the catchers done got you.”

Their father lowered the weapon, then motioned with his hand. A small crowd of people moved toward them from the woodlot, the Biggs’s retriever on a leash held by one of the shadowy figures.

“How’d you know, Daddy?” said Hannah.

“That you was followin us?” Basil whispered. “You think I done this all these years and not been aware of my surroundings?”

“Why didn’t you get us earlier?” Cecilia said. “If you knew and all, I mean.”

“Had to get you to a spot we could jump you and the others could get away.”

As the figures drew in closer, Hannah saw that it was a whole family—strapping, tall man; short woman with wide hips and wide cheekbones; two boys about her age; and a little girl maybe a year younger than Cecilia.

“Runaways?” said Hannah.

“That’s right,” said Basil. “Guess you all know.”

“Where they from?” said Hannah.

“This here family? They up from Virginia. They’s got people that’s meetin us at McAllister’s mill. A couple of cousins. They’s up from Maryland.”

“What do we do now, Daddy?” Hannah said.

“You in it now,” said Basil. “Ain’t no time to bring you back, and it ain’t a good idea to send you back on your own. So you goin with us. You walk with the kids and keep em company but stay quiet. They ain’t had a good trip so far. Now let’s get goin.”

They all moved together, and Hannah and Cecilia fell in with the kids. “What’s yo names?” Hannah whispered.

“You don’t need to know they names,” Basil hissed over his shoulder.

One of the boys said back, “My new name is James. This here, him’s now Timothy. And our sister, that’s now Dinah.”

“Y’all got new names,” Cecilia said.

“Soon as we lef Massa’s house,” said James.

“Y’all hush now,” said Basil. “Voices carry at night when no one’s movin around.”

They fell into silent plodding over the landscape, staying as close to woods as possible and pausing anytime the dog halted or stopped to sniff. The adrenaline was now gone, and Hannah felt bone tired and thought perhaps this hadn’t been a great idea. She watched their dog troop ahead energetically. Faithful ole Sam. Except Sam wasn’t but a couple of years old. And when Hannah thought more about it, she realized they got Sam just after moving to Gettysburg. Daddy had taught Sam to fetch birds he might shoot, and she knew that he often took him out at night. “Raccoon hunting,” he once told her when she asked.

Why would dogs be along to help runaways? As she thought about it, she remembered that the slave catchers often hunted runaways with dogs. Was that why? Bring your own dog to sniff out slave catchers? Maybe fight with their dogs? She thought of the gun her dad carried the whole time. Was he ready to kill a slave catcher? Hannah had seen Daddy come home with turkeys, ducks, and geese, had watched him gut and de-feather them, had seen him pop out the lead pellets from the bodies. Would people chasing them be armed with shotguns too?

Hannah wondered what James and Timothy’s master had been like. She knew from how her parents talked that many masters were violent and that many enslaved people suffered terribly. Had James, Timothy, and Dinah gone through similar violence? What else could put you on the road like this with so much at risk?

Hannah pondered these and other ideas as they passed through the valley between the smaller Round Top and Cemetery Ridge. They had now been traveling for at least two hours in almost total silence except the occasional whispered direction. There had been few pauses except to evaluate the surroundings when ole Dan stopped to smell or look around.

They were on a farm lane nearing the Baltimore Pike when the faint clop of horse hooves echoed toward them from the north. Dan stopped, tensed, and growled softly. Basil signaled the runaways to take cover in nearby woods.

The clopping gained speed, and they saw a lantern cut through the darkness, floating above the dark form of a horse. Hannah watched Daddy, and he turned toward the approaching rider. Why was he not running for the woods too? Why was he not having the kids head to the woods?

The driver came to a halt near the family and pushed the lantern toward them until it fell on Basil, Hannah, Cecilia, and their dog.

“Why, it’s Mr. Biggs,” said the old rider on the horse. Hannah knew the voice instantly—John Burns, an old 1812 War veteran who had recently been appointed constable and who marched around town chasing kids back to school, haranguing shop owners for violations, and squabbling with the various town drunks and vagrants.

“Yes, sir,” said Daddy. “Lovely evening, Constable Burns.”

“Evening?” Burns snorted. “It’s the middle of the night.”

“The bars must be closed by now,” Daddy said. “The troublemakers must be off to bed.”

“You know what the word around town is, Mr. Biggs?” said Burns. Daddy shook his head. “The word is that escapees from down south are running right through Gettysburg. In defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act.”

“Don’t know nothin about that sir,” said Daddy.

“What are you doing out in the middle of the night, Mr. Biggs?” Burns said. “Should I bring my light and horse over to them woods and see if anyone’s following you?”

Hannah sensed Daddy tense, saw Dan lean hard against the leash. An uneasy silence prevailed, as Daddy started to lift the gun ever so slowly.

“Hunting,” Hannah said at least.

“What’s that?” said Constable Burns.

“You asked what we was doin. Huntin. That’s what we doin.”

“Hunting,” Burns repeated. “In the middle of the night.”

“Raccoons,” said Hannah. “And possums. Ain’t you never had possum pie, Constable?”

“When I was a lot younger,” Burns said.

“Well, then you know that you gots to get them at night. The possums and the raccoons, they don’t come out none during the day. They are . . . what do they say in school? Nocturnal. Yes. Nocturnal.”

Burns lowered the lantern back to his saddle. “You’re a long way from home to be finding possums.”

“We’s just followin Ole Dan,” said Hannah. “He ain’t really so old, but that’s what we calls him. Ole Dan. He’s a retriever and he helps Daddy get the ducks and geese, but he gots a nose like a bloodhound. Wherever he say to go, that’s where we go. We was right on the track of somethin when you come on up.”

“Were you now?” said Burns.

“Yes, sir,” Hannah said brightly.

“Doesn’t make sense,” Burns mumbled. “But running slaves in the middle of the night with your daughters don’t make sense either.” Burns sat there on his horse chewing a piece of grass, and Hannah could see him eyeing the dog, the shotgun, the kids, as though he was trying to do math in his head. And that’s when it occurred to Hannah that they were going to get away with it—he was outnumbered, alone, and outgunned.

“Be on your way, Mr. Biggs,” Constable Burns said at last. “Don’t wake the neighbors and good luck getting a possum.” Burns turned his horse back toward town, and they all watched the light fade with him.

Basil looked down at his daughter. “Ain’t teachin y’all nothin good in that school and at church on Sunday. The devil himself couldn’ta told a better, faster lie.”

Hannah gazed back at him. “I think the Lord Jesus told me how to do it.”

“That a fact?” Basil said. “The Lord taught you how to lie.”

“I didn’t have no ideas and neither did you. And then a little voice whispered in my mind that we had a gun and a dog and we was out huntin and it was simple as that.”

“A little voice, huh?” said Basil.

“Yes, sir. Same as what spoke to Elijah the prophet. Not in a wind or in the thunder or nothin. A still, small voice.”

“Well, you best keeps yo voice down the rest of the way so we don’t be runnin into no mo problems,” said Basil.

And soon, they were on their way again. It was probably half past three in the morning when they were within sight of McAllister’s Mill, and Basil brought them to a halt. They waited along a horse path while Basil crept to a barn. It took about twenty minutes, but when he returned, he was atop a wagon pulled by a horse. In the back of the wagon were sacks of flour, as well as the runaways’ cousins riding with their legs dangling off. Basil brought the horses to a halt and hopped down.

“Now listen,” he said, his voice hushed and just above a whisper. “Everyone in the back except Hannah who rides up with me. All y’all take some of the empty sacks and drape them over you and around you. Most likely, ain’t no one gonna stop us, but if they does, we just takin a delivery of flower to the Yellow Hill settlement.

There was happy murmuring between the runaway family and their cousins, but Basil’s warnings quieted them, and everyone moved to the back of the wagon, taking turns wedging themselves among the sacks and pulling empty sacks over them. At last, Hannah sat up on the driver’s seat next to Daddy, and they started through the woods and back to the Baltimore Pike. The town was dark and quiet save the occasional lantern still on at an inn or one of the watering holes. They saw a drunk passed out in the streets, and in another case, they saw a woman out on her step sweeping off the front porch just before the first fingers of pink light would touch the sky from the east.

They headed north and were soon back among farm fields.

“Yo mama gonna tan our hides,” said Basil to Hannah after a half hour of riding in silence.

“I didn’t think we would be out this long,” said Hannah.

“What did you think?” Basil said.

“I don’t know,” Hannah said softly. “I just knowed that you could go on one of these and not come back and I couldn’t stand the thought of it.”

Basil was quiet for several long minutes, and Hannah felt herself drifting toward sleep.

“I suppose I understand what you mean,” Basil said. “I wasn’t born in slavery, but yo mama and I, we done risk our lives for years to help folks run away. Can’t explain it. Just can’t stop doin it. Can’t stand the thought of no man or woman or child held in bondage. I seen too much what happens to em.”

Daddy had never talked to Hannah like this before . . . like she was a grown up and could understand big things.

“I reckon it wasn’t very smart of me to sneak out. I knew it was dangerous, but I didn’t think too much how dangerous.”

“You got a good mind for this work,” said Basil. He glanced back at Ole Dan sitting among the flour sacks, his head nestled on top of one and his eyes closed. “Now tell me, why you s’pose I bring Ole Dan?”

“To fight with the slave catchers’ dogs if it come to that,” said Hannah.

Basil kept his eyes on the road and nodded. “That’s right. Give at least some of us a chance to get away.”

“And the shotgun?”

“Someone gonna die before you goes into slavery, Daddy,” said Hannah.

“That’s right, child,” said Basil, and he patted her knee. “We never give children the credit we should for all they see and know.”

First light was on its way to being a sunrise when they finally pulled onto the Matthews’ property at the Yellow Hill settlement. A woman stood on a small wooden porch as they approached, and she suddenly called out, “Out here right now, kids! We gots a delivery!”

“That’s Eleanor,” said Basil to Hannah.

As the wagon finally came to a halt, a small mob of kids emerged from the house followed by a middle-aged man with a short beard that Hannah assumed was their father. The back of the wagon was suddenly alive with movement, and Hannah hopped down from the seat and walked to the rear.

Ole Dan jumped from the wagon and immediately set after some chickens, and Cecilia trailed behind him, yawning and hollering, “Leave them chickens alone, Dan!”

Basil came around and began introducing the runaway family to Edward and Eleanor Matthews, while the kids pulled sacks of flour off the wagon and began to walk them into the house. Hannah grabbed a sack, hefted it out of the wagon, and began to walk unsteadily toward the house.

She suddenly came eye to eye with a shirtless, muscled boy with tightly trimmed hair. “Want me to get that?” he said.

“I got it,” said Hannah.

“You sure?” he said. “They’s heavy.”

“We gots a farm too, and I carries heavy things all the time,” said Hannah.

“At least heft it over your shoulder,” said the boy. “Then youse carryin it with your back and legs.”

Hannah rolled her eyes, but saw him grab a sack from the wagon and toss it over his shoulder. She imitated his movement, steadied herself, and said, “Thanks, uh, . . .”

“Nelson,” he said. “Nelson Matthews.”

“Hannah Biggs,” she replied as they walked into the house and dropped the bags on the kitchen floor.

“Oh, you Basil’s daughter then,” said Nelson.

“Yeah,” said Hannah.

“My daddy be knowin yo daddy since Maryland.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Hannah.

“Well, now you do,” said Nelson. “I thought you was one of the new ones up from down South. Maybe we’ll be seeing each other again. Yo Daddy’s up here once or twice a month at least.”

“What is this place?” Hannah said looking around.

Nelson motioned with his head. “Let me show you.”

He led her out the back door, and beyond the back porch was a sprawling set of tenement shacks and wood houses with people milling around them, sweeping, tossing feed to chickens, and setting to work in gardens.

“Welcome to Yellow Hill,” said Nelson. “Most of these folks are like the people y’all brung today. Most folks don’t stay with us. Most head north to Canada, but some of them stay behind. We work with people in Philadelphia to get them papers and names and new stories. We made us a church up over yonder hill. Everyone here is part of the railroad.”

“The railroad?” said Hannah.

“Aks yo daddy,” said Nelson. “He can tell you. He one of the biggest conductors in these parts.”

Hannah opened her mouth to ask more, but she heard her father call from the front, “Cecilia! Hannah! We gotta move. Yo mama gotta be havin a fit by now.”

“Looks like I gotta go,” said Hannah.

“Yeah,” said Nelson. “Maybe we’ll see each other again.” He smiled broadly at her, and she blushed as she turned to head back through the house to the front.


After reading Chapter 5, teachers, parents, or learners may want to dive into more historical sources by visiting the Chapter 5 resources page. Resources for all chapters can be found at the book’s resources page.

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