Thomas B. Macy
P.O. Box 927
Windsor, Colorado 80550
A short, short historical fiction story based on a true
event from the Underground Railroad.
Mary Quier stood at the door...watching. She embraced herself, unable to take her eyes from the bed, hoping for a sign that the end had not come so soon. The room was too dark to tell; it had no windows. A step closer, another, and another, until she stood over the bed where her son lay. There, his little chest heaved, just a mite. Mary exhaled; he was still alive.
Taking the rag off his forehead, she dipped it in the bowl and squeezed out the excess water. Gently, she replaced it upon his fevered brow, adjusting it, as if Therlon in some way cared how it felt. His cracked and peeling lips begged for relief; but as she ran wet fingers across them, they gave no response.
Just this past summer he played in the warm Indiana rain, jumping through puddles. So alive! So young! So much a four-year-old boy!
Something rolled down her cheek and dripped onto his arm. Wiping her eyes, Mary left the room.
Her husband was gone to town and wouldn't be back till tomorrow. She didn't want him to go, not now. Being without him wasn't the problem; usually it provided time alone with Therlon. But she was alone now with her son...so alone. She shivered.
Work still demanded attention. It would have to wait; she needed a minute. Up all night caring for her boy. Afraid to sleep, fearing what she might awaken to. Mary buried her head in her arms on the table…no one would hear…she shook with the sobs…he was dying…three weeks unconscious…death already owned him….
The kitchen had dimmed. She must have drifted off for just a few minutes.
The young man’s hands nervously pulled at the sleeves of his shirt as he glanced over his shoulder. “Mrs. Quier?” His whispered voice was hurried.
“Hast thou room for fugitives this evening?”
Oh, Lord, not now. Couldn’t the Quaker guide see her torment? “I’m sorry, sir. I’m just too tired; my husband is gone; and my child…” The words caught in her throat. “…won’t move. He’s lying at death’s door. I…”
“Take no thought about it, Mrs. Quier.” His eyes showed concern…this from a stranger. “We’ll just move on. Thou and thy husband are highly esteemed along the road. Good night, and God bless thee…truly” He tipped his hat.
From the shadows of the trees, seven black souls joined the man as he hurried on up the road into the edge of night.
How can you let them go? You baked all day and have more than you require. The house is stocked. Her gut twisted; this was not her—at least not before tonight. “Wait!”
Quickly, four black men and three women sat at her table. The guide stood guard by the window while she brought them water and provided a towel. The slaves protested being served, but Mary insisted. She wished it were possible to bring them warm water to bathe. But time pressed in on such travelers.
While most of them talked with rapid whispers, one old gentleman sat in silence. How long had he been a slave? White hair capped a wrinkled face. A heavenly presence surrounded him, in spite of the scars on his wrists and the smell of sweat. They said he was a Methodist minister. As she bent down to pour a fresh glass, he leaned closer. "Are you alone?"
"My husband is gone to town over night."
He waited as if expecting more.
"...And my son lies in yonder room."
He nodded. "Sick?"
She hurried off. It would not do for her guests to see her cry.
"Someone's coming...” The guide turned partially toward the table, but kept staring past the curtain. “…on horses." He joined the others. "Hast thou a hiding place?"
"The closet in my son’s room." She rushed the cups to the basin by the door. "But it will only take five, maybe six of you. Will be tight at that." She tossed the rags in as well.
The sound of hooves rose above the peaceful night.
The guide hurried to the sick room. "I see space behind the bed. I and the old man will lie there. If they find us, perhaps the others will be safe."
Left hand on her hip, Mary stood on the porch holding the lantern high and to the right to see who had asked the question. "You approach me with guns as if I were a mad dog and expect an answer?"
"We're not after you." The man's horse danced nervously.
"Then lower your weapon."
He rested his pistol upon the saddle horn, but his eyes, in the flickering light, bristled the hair on her arms. Two other men rode through the yard peering into thickets and looking about the barn.
"Again, we want our run-a-ways." His voice was gravelly. He cleared his throat and spit. "Give them up!"
"What gives you the right to come at me with such a request?"
"The Fugitive Slave law...Ma’am."
Mary knew that. She and her husband had chosen to risk all for doing right. She took a deep breath. "I hear tell that a family up the road a piece gives safe haven. Have you checked there?"
"And I'm to accept your word? The Quiers are known for harboring our niggers."
"Don't know how we got such a reputation, sir."
The man, brandishing the pistol, dismounted his horse.
Mary's stomach said retreat but she gave no ground. He stopped so close she felt his breath and smelled the acrid sweat of horse and man. His face towered over her, covered with stubble, matted hair riding wildly from beneath a stained hat. Another step and he would surely knock her to the floor.
"Move aside!" He slowly raised his gun between their faces.
Mary backed into her house followed by the hunter.
One quick look around and he lowered his head, glowering at her. "You need all these cups? And dirty rags?" His gun tapped the basin.
"Sir, I have not had..."
He stomped about, looking under the simple rug in front of the hearth. "Where are they?"
"Even if those poor souls were with me, I would not tell you." Her husband often warned about such belligerence, but sometimes the words just burst out.
He jerked the lantern away and hit her with the back of his hand. She caught herself on the table as he headed for the closed door.
"I would not enter there." Mary tasted blood. Her stomach tightened. Therlon's bed was not that big. "My son is dying from Typhoid Fever."
He laughed. His shoulders tensed.
Mary moved to block the way. “The doctor said any who enter will grow sick themselves.”
Pushing her aside, gun at the ready, he opened the door. The room was dark.
Holding the lantern before him, he took no more than one step in, looked toward the bed, and then quickly backed out. He stood with his back to Mary, staring into the room. She wanted to breathe but couldn’t.
Like the sound of a gun in a quiet wood, he turned on her. “You may not have slaves here now.” He pushed her. She stumbled back into the wall. “But I’d say you did.” He moved to within inches of her and put his hand about her neck. The strength in the fingers kept her head from moving. “When we find them, they’ll tell me where they’ve been. You best hope your name is not on their lips.” He pushed her aside like a rag doll and left.
More than an hour passed before Mary felt safe enough to re-light the lantern. As the house grew brighter, so did the conversations.
Late into the evening, the old slave silenced the joyous whispers. “We must give thanks, for God has brought us through the shadow of death, and into the wonderful care of this blessed lady. As He has guided us, may he take you, Mrs. Quier, through the shadow that remains." In simple words more eloquent than she had ever heard, he lifted hands toward heaven and praised the care of his God, asking Him to remember also her son. Though little comfort, God had used the death of her son to bring life to these people.
Mary stood on the porch as the fugitives faded into the darkness. They had far to go and left much too soon. Clouds hid the stars. This was a good night for travel on the Underground Railroad. Things may not always go as she hoped; but, when all was said and done, this part of the world would be a better place because of her. A feeling of peace wrapped about her even as tears fought for release. She took a deep breath. She was alone again. The boards creaked behind her.