Home > The Underground Railroad(10)

The Underground Railroad(10)
Colson Whitehead

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 thoroughly searched 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 the village 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, they misinterpreted 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, led by 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 small diary 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 sympathizers would 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 packed for 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 smoothed over. Cora got on her knees and planted anew. It was her inheritance.

NOW in the thin moonlight, her head throbbing, Cora appraised her tiny garden. Weeds, weevils, the ragged footprints of critters. She had neglected her land since the feast. Time to return to it.

Terrance’s visit the next day was uneventful save for one disturbing moment. Connelly took him through his brother’s operation, as it had been some years since Terrance had made a proper tour. His manner was unexpectedly civil from all accounts, absent his standard sardonic remarks. They discussed the numbers from last year’s haul and examined the ledgers that contained the weigh-ins from the previous September. Terrance expressed annoyance at the overseer’s lamentable handwriting but apart from that the men got along amiably. They did not inspect the slaves or the village.

On horses they circumnavigated the fields, comparing the progress of the harvest on the two halves. Where Terrance and Connelly made their crossings through the cotton, the nearby slaves redoubled their efforts in a furious wave. The hands had been chopping the weeds for weeks, slashing hoes into the furrows. The stalks were up to Cora’s shoulders now, bending and tottering, sprouting leaves and squares that were bigger every morning. Next month the bolls would explode into whiteness. She prayed the plants were tall enough to hide her when the white men passed. She saw their backs as they proceeded from her. Then Terrance turned. He nodded, tipped his cane at her, and continued on.

James died two days later. His kidneys, the doctor said.

Longtime residents of the Randall plantation couldn’t help but compare the funerals of the father and the son. The elder Randall had been a revered member of planter society. The western riders commanded all the attention now but it was Randall and his brethren who were the true pioneers, carving out a life in this humid Georgia hell all those years ago. His fellow planters cherished him as a visionary for being the first in the region to switch to cotton, leading the profitable charge. Many was the young farmer suffocating in credit who came to Randall for advice—advice freely and generously given—and in his time came to master an enviable spread.

The slaves got time off to attend Old Randall’s funeral. They stood in a quiet huddle while all the fine white men and women paid their respects to the beloved father. The house niggers acted as pallbearers, which everyone thought scandalous at first but on further consideration took as an indicator of genuine affection, one they had indeed enjoyed with their own slaves, with the mammy whose titties they suckled in more innocent times and the attendant who slipped a hand under soapy water at bath time. At the end of the service it began to rain. It put an end to the memorial but everyone was relieved because the drought had gone on too long. The cotton was thirsty.

By the time of James’s passing, the Randall sons had cut off social ties with their father’s peers and protégés. James had many business partners on paper, some of whom he had met in person, but he had few friends. To the point, Terrance’s brother had never received his human portion of sentimentality. His funeral was sparsely attended. The slaves worked the rows—with the harvest approaching there was no question. It was all spelled out in his will, Terrance said. James was buried near his parents in a quiet corner of their abundant acreage, next to his father’s mastiffs Plato and Demosthenes, who had been beloved by all, man and nigger alike, even if they couldn’t keep away from the chickens.

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