Hunting

The dogs strained against the rope leashes, barking loudly, the noise sounding like deafening thunder in my ears. They almost looked like they were mad, for many were literally foaming at the mouth. It was from excitement, though, not madness. My arms felt like they were being pulled out of their sockets. Finally, the shout came, "Let 'em go!" I dropped the leashes, and the dogs were off, streaking into the woods like banshees were after them. "C'mon, boys!" yelled our leader, Bob Mays, drunk with excitement.

I quickly mounted my small nut brown mare, who was now tossing her head, eager to follow the rest of the horses who were now crashing through the trees in pursuit of our prey. Settling back into the saddle, I loosened my reins and let my mare go. She had caught the fever of excitement in the air, and she was off like a bullet. We crashed through the forest, following only the sound of the rest of our fellow pursuers. I ducked down in the saddle as branches whipped by over head, dripping with the moisture from last night's rain. The muddy ground made it easier to track our prey.

We finally caught up with them at the side of a river that churned and roared past us. The dogs raced along the mucky bank in a frenzy, frustrated at losing the scent. Bob Mays sat on his large bay gelding a few feet away. "Smart runaway," he muttered, scanning the opposite bank with his sharp eyes.

I silently agreed. I had been hesitant at coming along on this runaway chase in the first place, and now I was starting to wonder. I had always been told that the slaves were happy under their white masters, but . . . If they're so happy, then why are they so determined to escape? I knew the stories: many of the slaves risked death and beatings from their owners by running away, not to mention the dangerous rivers, swamps . . . and treacherous people, people who would turn them in to the slave hunters. People who would turn them in to us. And I knew what happened to the slaves when we caught them, before we delivered them to their owners.

My mind was suddenly made up. I tugged at my mare's reins, turning her west. "Hey boys," I called. Six heads turned in my direction. "Think she headed toward Maysville? I heard there's a safe house out that way." I stared at them, desperately hoping that my suggestion would work.

It was quiet, then Bob Mays slowly nodded, and, without a word, urged his horse west. Everyone else quickly followed. I hung back, for I knew that there was no such safe house. The slave was headed north. I urged my mare across the river, the water threatening to drag us off like a monster for its dinner. We fought the current, swollen and dirty with the rain, and I thought for a few heart-stopping moments that we wouldn't make it. But we finally reached the opposite bank.

I traveled my mare in an arch, hoping to cross the slave's path as she headed north. I could barely see through the dense, dripping undergrowth, which was as tightly woven as my Ma's sewing. I paused, and waited, trying to get a bearing on my surroundings. I sat rigid in the saddle, chewing my lower lip in frustration. Suddenly, a black figure hurtled out of the darkness and collapsed at my mare's feet. My horse shied backward, and I steadied her with a quiet hand on the reins. My eyes came to rest on the figure lying huddled at my feet. My mouth fell open in astonishment. It was the slave girl. She lay on the cold, wet ground, gasping, then she caught sight of me. We stared at each other for a moment, her dark eyes filled with tremendous fear. She was bedraggled and filthy, and there were many small scratches down her arms and legs. She was soaking wet from crossing the river, and she shivered uncontrollably. Suddenly, she staggered to her feet, and whirled, getting ready to run.

I quickly swung off of my mare and leapt for her, catching her around the ankle. We both fell to the ground in a tangled heap. She fought like a tigress, but froze when I got an arm around her chest. "Please, suh," she gasped, trembling like a leaf.

"Shush," I hissed, clamping a hand over her mouth. She quieted, especially when the hoof beats of the other slave hunters sounded through the forest. I stiffened, then relaxed slightly, thinking we were well enough concealed that they would miss us. Then my heart skipped a beat. My horse . . . the mare, frightened by the hoarse barking of the dogs, wheeled and galloped into the brush. The slave hunters, apparently seeing through my "suggestion", were milling around on their horses, confused. I didn't dare move, the slave and I frozen in fear. I heard the dogs' frenzied barking coming closer and closer. In the darkness, I could faintly see their blurry shapes racing along the forest floor near us, questing noses to the ground. The slave girl started trembling again, so much that I thought she would fly apart. I could feel her fear hammering through her chest, and I caught some of it too. My heart pounded in my chest, my breath coming short. The dogs came closer and closer . . . they were about to find us . . .

Then they barreled on past. What- I thought, unwilling to believe it. As I watched them racing though the forest, I realized something: they had picked up my mare's scent. The dogs ran into the forest, barking loudly. The hunters galloped past, so close that their passing rose my hair in a cold breeze.

The slave girl and I finally relaxed, the tension draining out of our bodies. She collapsed against me, silently weeping into my chest, "Thank yeh, suh, thank yeh . . ."

I shushed her. Now wasn't the time for thanks. "Listen," I whispered. Her face was buried in my chest, but she twitched, and so I knew she was listening. My throat was dry. I swallowed hard and continued, "I know of a Quaker family about three miles east of here. They may be able to help you." I hesitated, then sat up and pulled my cloak off of my shoulders. I spread the dark green material over her thin, shaking shoulders. "Here, take this. You'll be warm. Now go!"

She drew back and staggered to her feet. She stared at me for a moment, her eyes shining out of her dark face like two stars. She whirled and rushed off into the brush. I watched her go, my eyes sad. Finally, I sat up and brushed myself off, preparing for a long hike back to town. I trudged off into the forest, toward the south, silently wishing the slave girl Godspeed.