It was a crisp day, quite close to winter, when the sky pulled back from allowing the sun to pay frequent visits to Washington Valley, Virginia. This was one of the days when the sun was absent, and the sky was dark and gray, full of mist and shadows, allotting only despair and dejection upon earth. Gaily, Miriam Warren, her gray, drab bonnet of the Quaker dress pulled over her dark hair, which fell about her shoulders in a myriad of silky tresses, sauntered along a back path through the pine and oak woods, which made up much of the valley. This certain lane ran near the wealthy Oak Hill plantation, owned by the affluent Hamiltons. The wind chorused a low, mournful tune that rustled the dejected, bare trees, sounding like a long, deep shudder. In the crook of her elbow, Miriam carried a basket of market goods she had just purchased in Washington Valley. Her inquisitive, dark eyes were forever alert and surveying her woodland surroundings. It was then that she noticed a figure blindly stumbling down a path that branched off the main road. The vague personage finally came near enough and into a shaft of light that was coming through the dim woods, bright enough for Miriam to recognize the appearance of Elisabeth, a young slave belonging to the Oak Hill dwellers. Earlier in the past month or more, Miriam had befriended Elisabeth and her husband Samuel, a genial couple, who the young Quaker girl had immediately become close with. She often visited their cabin that was close to where Miriam presently walked. Visiting the two slaves, but avoiding any contact with the overseer or the Hamilton family, Miriam found that she was able to comfort them, so she tried to come when she could. Slaves were not permitted to have callers according to Mr. Hamilton’s plantation rules—they were just negroes— and negroes didn’t have visitors in Hamilton’s mind.
Elisabeth’s face was streaked with fresh tears, and her eyes were wild with fear and distress, pain visible in every feature.
“Oh! Elisabeth! What is wrong with thee?” Miriam gasped, coming forward, to obstruct Elisabeth in her desperate flight. She pushed back her bonnet to examine the young black woman closely.
Elisabeth looked up, eyes brimming with the tears that slipped down her cheeks in an instant, coming faster and faster every second; but she seemed to relax a little as soon as she saw that her dear friend, Miriam, was there. Her hair was matted, Miriam recognized, and hadn’t been tended to for a while.
“Sam!” Elisabeth choked, as she almost spat out the words from trembling lips, “It’s Sam!” She lowered her head and sobs shook her thin body.
“Thee must tell me!” Miriam pleaded softly, touching Elisabeth’s hand which hung limp at her side, “Please…What is it?”
Elisabeth raised her head, and with glistening eyes, whispered in a quavering voice, “Sold! Sam’s gonna be <em>sold</em>!”
Miriam opened her lips to cry out in distress for her friend’s plight, but closed them again, afraid she would choke with sorrow. Finally she managed to ask the simple question, “Why?”
Elisabeth stared insipidly at Miriam for a long while, before finally replying, shaking her head, tears still streaking down her cheeks that were smudged with dust and dirt. “Sam done got sold cause he stood up to Massa’ George—he complained ‘bout the poor rations we’se been gittin’. Two other slaves— Joel and Ben…them troublemakers—got him to do it…Massa’ George flew into a rage when Sam asked, yellin’ that we’se not grateful for what he gives us… Sam tried again later on, when he thought Massa’ George had calmed down, but this second time—M—Massa’ G-George declared he’d sell him! Says it’s the beginnin’ of a rebellion, with us all goin’ on about how everythin’ isn’t good enough… ‘doesn’t want any complain’ slaves on his hands!’ that’s what he says…” At this point, Elisabeth burst into another round of sobs, and fell into Miriam’s arms, and the young girl comforted her.
Miriam could utter not a word, for her mind was whirling, as she thought of Elisabeth’s tremulous words. Pain flooded into her heart, but soon vanished when a rage surged within her mind. How could he? Her heart cried, as she felt tears fill her own eyes, partly in anger, and partly in distress. Her animosity was vented towards Mr. George Hamilton, who, she now avidly believed, was responsible for all of this sorrow. Warmth rushed into her face, as her heart pounded in vehemence, when Miriam remembered the young plantation owner of Oak Hill, who, she had come to know by coincidence. Miriam, though she had a quiet and benevolent nature, instantly disapproved of and loathed Mr. Hamilton. She had been disgusted by his cruel and malicious temperament, abominable disposition, and apathetic demeanor when considering his slaves’ welfare. Miriam’s first impression of him had been quite unfortunate for it affected latter thoughts of him, that may have otherwise been magnanimous, but it couldn’t be helped. Regrettably, she had first seen him in the most dreadful of circumstances, thrashing his poor, miserable slave who had, on this certain occasion, been carrying a bundle of papers from the nearby town—Washington Valley. When she came across this ruthless beating, in horror, Miriam had hastily intervened, and shown her instantaneous disregard for him at once. This, in her mind, quenched his hate for slavery adversaries, and he had rudely shouted to her that she might mind her own business, and allow him to deal with his slaves. This had rallied up a fierce animosity within Miriam’s heart towards him.
Now Miriam focused her thoughts on the lamenting Elisabeth, and murmured, “Thee mustn’t cry, Elisabeth. Please don’t cry.” She looked down into the black woman’s eyes, which were so desolate and despairing that she added, unexpectedly, yet determinedly, “Sam will not be sold, dear Elisabeth. I promise thee. I will do everything I can to prevent that.”
Elisabeth stared at her in astonishment, but a bit of the grief in her eyes faded, when she whispered, “Oh, Missy Miriam!” She brushed away her tears, and, putting a hand to her cheek in surprise, Elisabeth said softly, “Bless you! God bless you!” Beaming with vivid ecstasy, she gazed upon Miriam with lucid appreciation. Her joy was like sunlight spreading across a dark valley.
Miriam touched her hand, and gave the slave woman a bright smile, “Thee must promise to not cry anymore. We shall free dear Samuel, for he mustn’t be sold by… M-Mr. Hamilton.” she hesitated while uttering Mr. Hamilton’s name, for she’d rather not speak of him—so great was her wrath and resentment.
Elisabeth nodded vigorously, and returned the grin, but then returned to her former grave mood. [6.] Her eyes reflected her qualms. “It is mighty dangerous Missy Miriam. What if one of ‘dem slave catchers found us out. You’d be arrested fo’ sure! You and yo’ family! ‘Sides—why’d you wanna get yo-self arrested on account of Sam and me?”
“We do not believe in a human owning another human,” Miriam explained, looking into Elisabeth’s sable eyes, “And whether we get arrested or not, we shall never stop believing in that, or helping slaves. We shan’t let the danger of being sent to jail deter us. Thee mustn’t worry, Elisabeth. Thee and Samuel shall be free!”
“Oh! Bless you! Bless you dear Missy Miriam! You’se the sweetest girl I’se ever met!” Elisabeth cried, and quickly embraced Miriam, her joy and gratefulness showing through every feature.
“Dost thee know when Samuel is to be sold?” Miriam queried, after they had finished the affectionate hug.
“Massa’ George—he’s gonna take Sam to market this Saturday.”
“Then that leaves us little time,” Miriam thoughtfully remarked. “Saturday is only three days away. We must be hasty—Friday—tomorrow, shall be the best day. I shall bring thee and Sam to my house. I’m sure my father will know what to do. We have no time, though. Samuel and thee must be ready for a hasty flight.”
“But it’ll be dangerous, Missy Miriam! You must be careful—mind you. I wouldn’t like it one bit if I knew that you done lost yo’ freedom and be sent to one of ‘dem jails while I get my freedom and go North,” Elisabeth gasped.
“Thee mustn’t worry,” Miriam said again, patting Elisabeth’s hand comfortingly, “Thee shall be free, and that matters. We shall be careful, though—we shall be especially careful!”
Elisabeth let out a soft cry, and clasped her hands over her mouth, eyes shining with excitement and aspiration.
“Go now—thee must prepare for the journey thee is about to start out on. Tell Samuel to be ready. I shall be there at twelve in the early morn. Thee go now,” Miriam told her in a low voice, and watched as Elisabeth danced down the path towards Oak Hill Plantation.
As Miriam watched her go, trepidation etched itself into her heart. Inside her mind, wonders, questions, and doubts swirled about in a hazy mess She knew that aiding a runaway slave was a dangerous business, and the punishments were alarming. Miriam’s parents had not yet become thoroughly involved in the perilous affairs of this liberating enterprise, known now as the Underground Railroad, which had been running for some years now. Now, though, Miriam worried about Elisabeth and Sam’s safety when they escaped North, for now it was not safe even in northern-most states. Unfortunately, Slave catchers were legally sanctioned and could profusely pursue any fugitives into the Northern states. They vied for the promising rewards, offered by the owner if they managed to catch a runaway. Since the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law that was put into action four years ago in 1850, Canada was the only haven of safety. Although it may be a land where slaves could live free, Canada was quite a way from Virginia, and the route there was a hazardous one indeed.
Miriam didn’t doubt for a moment that her parents would be willing to aid Elisabeth and Sam, though now prolific anxiety crept into her overwrought mind. Miriam would tell them of her plans to whisk Elisabeth and Sam to Canada, after she had safely reached her home with the two slaves. At present, she must plot her daring flight onto the Oak Hill Plantation, to find the slave couple, and facilitate them to liberty.
Miriam quietly slipped from her bed beside her younger sister. Agatha, who was slumbering peacefully beneath the warm quilts, was oblivious of her sister’s stealthy manner. Shivering, the young girl, after memorizing earlier exactly how she would reach them in the dark, crept to the wardrobe and found her dress and struggled into it. As she slid her stocking-covered feet into her shoes, Miriam thought of the feat she was about to accomplish, and whispered a quick prayer to God for her safety and His deliverance. For one brief moment, she questioned what she was about to execute, thinking of the young Mr. George Hamilton, and what he might do if he found out that it was she who had stolen away with his two slaves in the dead of a wintery night. Determinedly, Miriam firmly told herself that he would never know it was her. She must trust in God to enable her plans to succeed.
Miriam stealthily hurried out of the small room and rushed into her hooded cloak, which she decided would be capable of concealing her face—should any unwanted light fall onto her and reveal her identity. Now, utterly snug and prepared for the impending excursion, Miriam slipped out into the bitter evening. The only bit of light that illuminated her path was the bright, silvery moon overhead, flickering in and out of the bony trees. Miriam flitted in and out of the underbrush, her sharp eye and ear catching every sight and sound; and every noise, unfortunately, caused the young girl to start in alarm. Ever alert, she found herself nearing Oak Hill, and soon, she was crouched behind a fortification of shady bushes, which concealed her entirely. Her luminous eyes turned to the plantation house, and to her surprise and distress, a light was on in one of the rooms. Miriam waited for a bit in the dark woods, before emerging into the small clearing as the neighborhood of huts came into view. Miriam had been to Elisabeth and Sam’s cabin several times, and recognized their abode in a corner of the slave vicinity. One who might have been wandering about that particular night would have been impressed by the serenity and grace the slender, silent, skulking young girl displayed as she moved like a shadow across the bit of open field. Pausing for a moment, this personage, her features so radiantly glowing under the white radiance of the winter moon, stole a quick look around, before slipping behind a tree, concealing herself from any watchful eye.
Quietly, she made her way for the cluster of huts. Around in the shady woods, all was dark, all was hushed, and all was eerily static. Miriam seemed to nimbly glide over the ground, a phantom haunting the frosty air of the forest, till finally she stood before Elisabeth and Samuel’s cabin. Not a light shone from their paneless windows, nor a sound from within. Miriam looked around once more, her dark eyes grave and full of the utmost solemnity, and then gave a soft knock on the door. And low—she heard a faint scuffling from behind the closed, rickety door, and finally she heard someone draw the curtains aside from the window that was around the corner of the house. Hastily, she scurried round back and found Elisabeth and Samuel on the verge of crawling out of the small square opening.
Elisabeth struggled through first, and as soon as she reached the ground, threw her arms about Miriam, crying softly, thanking her in soft, yet earnest murmurs. [6.] Jubilance was plain in Samuel’s face.
“Thee must be silent now,” Miriam whispered, loud enough for both to hear.
Sam quickly uttered, his eyes shining in the moonlight, “Bless ye Missy Miriam! Bless ye!”
She gave him a bright smile, and took both of their hands. “Thee must follow me. They are sure to find out by morning—we shall hope that thee shall be well on thy way to Canada by morning! Come.”
“<em>Canada</em>!” Miriam heard Elisabeth breathe, as the threesome slipped into the darkness of the woods, now out of the revealing moonshine. They were determined to elude any suspicious figure that might be lurking, ready to pounce on them—slave catchers. Trepidation wedged itself into Miriam’s heart as she and the two runaways stumbled along the dark path. She wondered what her mother and father would say about becoming involved in helping slaves escape. Yes, they would be more than eager to help, yet, she knew, they both were well aware of the dangers of such an exploit.
The towering trees all ‘round were intimidating, and the only visible comforts were the eerie shafts of moonlights falling onto the ground like splashes of silvery light. Nearby, somewhere in the depth of the wood, was a small creek trickling ever so softly, almost humming a sweet, yet rebuking song, warning the three covert passersby, that danger could lurk anywhere around. Curling tree branches reached out, snaking about the cheeks and hair of the figures, snagging at their skin, raking through tresses of unprotected hair. Miriam drank in the fresh pine scent that drifted in and out of the trees like a current of haunting fragrance carrying along a powerful sense of exhilaration that spurred the threesome onward.
It wasn’t long before the Warren’s farmhouse appeared in view, and Miriam, with a sigh of both relief and apprehension, turned briskly to the two following and whispered anxiously, “Thee must hurry!” Her own footsteps picked up speed till she began to run. Elisabeth and Samuel followed her example, both of them peering over their shoulders nervously.
Miriam quietly opened the door, and motioned for Elisabeth and Samuel to enter. They obediently did so, eyes large with curiosity as they looked about at the comfortable, country, surroundings. From down the hall, a door creaked open, and the three looked tensely towards the threatening sound. The shape of Mama, with a lamp in her hand, appeared from the corridor. When she saw the two strange figures, accompanied by one whom she recognized as her own daughter, she came forward. When Miriam perceived the shape of the approaching, weary Mrs. Warren, her heart skipped a beat with a mixture of excitement and panic.
“Who are thee?” Mama inquired in a somewhat shaky voice, the light illuminating her white face. Miriam quickly answered for Elisabeth and Samuel.
“They are friends,” she hastily explained, and her mother only gazed at her, in an expression of surprise.
“Dost thou mean Friends seeking freedom?” Mama finally queried.
Miriam nodded staunchly, her face sober in the golden glow of the candle flame. “This is Elisabeth and Samuel, who wish to journey to Canada.”
Mama turned to the silent couple who only listened in an anxious quiet. “Thee are workers from Oak Hill Plantation?”
They nodded soundlessly.
“Thee wishes to run away?”
Elisabeth and Samuel nodded again, their eyes full of excitement and fortitude.
Mama was quiet for a moment, her pensive eyes first resting on Miriam, then returning to Elisabeth and Samuel, “A Brother should not be forced into bondage,” she murmured, “All deserve to be free.” She then offered the two a congenial and relieving smile, and nodded, “Thee must get thy rest for thy journey ahead. It will be long, difficult, and dangerous, but thee shall be a free man and woman when thee reaches Canada. We shall help thee. I shall get thee some food and then thee shall sleep for a bit before my husband Isaac takes thee to Friend Johnson’s. He is an abolitionist, and he shall take thee to the next station.”
It was then that Mrs. Warren glanced at her daughter, her eyes lingering over Miriam with a ponderous air, and finally spoke, turning to the young girl, “We’ve been waiting for the right time to tell thee—daughter, thy father and I have been station masters for some time now. It appears by thy recent actions that though are ready to join us in our work for the Underground Railroad.”
Miriam, for a moment, was silent as she tried to comprehend all that her mother said. Her youthful heart pounded with enthusiasm and excitement, as she thought of the thrilling adventures that might be involved in helping in the Underground Railroad. The young girl was a bit surprised, though, to learn that her parents had been, without her knowledge, stowing runaways around the Warren home. But, she felt a sentiment of elation as she comprehended that she would be a part of aiding slaves seeking independence and freedom from past tyranny and bondage. Finally Miriam replied in a quiet, yet staunch tone of voice, her dark eyes shining with vibrant exuberance, though her speech was short: “Yes, Mama. I want to help thee.”
The look of commending jubilance on Mrs. Warren’s face was that of radiant pleasure and pride, one that made Miriam feel as if she had answered well and had delivered her first passengers on the Underground Railroad successfully. It was here that Elisabeth and Samuel spoke up, their voices sounding in unison. “Bless you all!” they beamed with glistening eyes, “We shall be together, free—we is catchin’ that train to the Promised Land.” Pure gratefulness was vivid in their tone and countenance, and both mother and daughter who stood with them found themselves exalted in joy that two souls would soon be delivered from oppression.