The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead Read Free Book Online

Book: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead Read Free Book Online
Authors: Colson Whitehead
bred for generations to detect nigger scent across whole counties, chewing and mangling many a wayward hand. When the creatures strained against their leather straps and pawed at the air, their barking made every soul in the quarters want to run to their cabins. But the day’s picking lay before the slaves foremost and theystooped to their orders, enduring the dogs’ terrible noise and the visions of blood to come.
    The bills and fliers circulated for hundreds of miles. Free negroes who supplemented their living catching runaways combed through the woods and wormed information from likely accomplices. Patrollers and posses of low whites harassed and bullied. The quarters of all the nearby plantations were thoroughlysearched and no small number of slaves beaten on principle. But the hounds came up empty, as did their masters.
    Randall retained the services of a witch to goofer his property so that no one with African blood could escape without being stricken with hideous palsy. The witch woman buried fetishes in secret places, took her payment, and departed in her mule cart. There was a hearty debate in thevillage over the spirit of the goofer. Did the conjure apply only to those who had an intention to run or to all colored persons who stepped over the line? A week passed before the slaves hunted and scavenged in the swamp again. That’s where the food was.
    Of Mabel there was no sign. No one had escaped the Randall plantation before. The fugitives were always clawed back, betrayed by friends, theymisinterpreted the stars and ran deeper into the labyrinth of bondage. On their return they were abused mightily before being permitted to die and those they left behind were forced to observe the grisly increments of their demise.
    The infamous slave catcher Ridgeway paid a call on the plantation one week later. He rode up on his horses with his associates, five men of disreputable mien, ledby a fearsome Indian scout who wore a necklace of shriveled ears. Ridgeway was six and a half feet tall, with the square face and thick neck of a hammer. He maintained a serene comportment at all times but generated a threatening atmosphere, like a thunderhead that seems far away but then is suddenly overhead with loud violence.
    Ridgeway’s audience lasted half an hour. He took notes in a smalldiary and to hear the house speak of it was a man of intense concentration and flowery manner of speech. He did not return for two years, not long before Old Randall’s death, to apologize in person for his failure. The Indian was gone, but there was a young rider with long black hair who wore a similar ring of trophies over his hide vest. Ridgeway was in the vicinity to visit a neighboring planter,offering as proof of capture the heads of two runaways in a leather sack. Crossing the state line was a capital offense in Georgia; sometimes a master preferred an example over the return of his property.
    The slave catcher shared rumors of a new branch of the underground railroad said to be operating in the southern part of the state, as impossible as it sounded. Old Randall scoffed. The sympathizerswould be rooted out and tarred and feathered, Ridgeway assured his host. Or whatever satisfied local custom. Ridgeway apologized once again and took his leave and soon his gang crashed to the county road toward their next mission. There was no end to their work, the river of slaves that needed to be driven from their hidey-holes and brought to the white man’s proper accounting.
    Mabel had packedfor her adventure. A machete. Flint and tinder. She stole a cabin mate’s shoes, which were in better shape. For weeks, her empty garden testified to her miracle. Before she lit out she dug up every yam from their plot, a cumbersome load and ill-advised for a journey that required a fleet foot. The lumps and burrows in the dirt were a reminder to all who walked by. Then one morning they were smoothedover. Cora got on her knees and planted anew. It was her

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