They had been on the run for six days, traveling mainly at night, all the while listening for the baying of hounds. The man, if asked his age, would have said forty-eight, forty-nine, or fifty, he wasn’t sure. His hair was cut short, like gray wool stitched above a dark face. A lantern swayed by his side, the twine that secured it chafing the bullwhip scar ridging his left shoulder. With his right hand he clutched a tote sack. His companion was seventeen and of a lighter complexion, the color of an oft-used gold coin. The youth’s hair was close-cropped as well, the curls tinged red. He carried the map.
As the foothills became mountains, the journey became more arduous. What food they’d brought had been eaten days earlier. They filled the tote with corn and okra from fields, eggs from a henhouse, apples from orchards. The land steepened more, and their lungs never seemed to fill. “I heard that white folks up here don’t have much,” the youth huffed, “but you’d think they’d at least have air.” The map showed one more village, Blowing Rock, then a ways farther a stream and soon a plank bridge. An arrow pointed over the bridge. Beyond that, nothing but blank paper, as though no word or mark could convey what the fugitives sought but had never known.
They crossed the bridge near dusk. At the first cabin they came to, a hound bayed as they approached. They went on. The youth wondered aloud how they were supposed to know which place, which family, to trust. The fugitives passed a two-story farmhouse, prosperous-looking. The man said walk on. As the day waned, a cabin and a barn appeared, light glowing from a front window of the cabin. Their lantern remained unlit, though now neither of them could see where he stepped. They passed a small orchard, and soon after the man tugged his companion’s arm and led him off the road and into a pasture.
“Where we going, Viticus?” the youth asked.
“To roost in that barn till morning,” the man answered. “Black folks nor white wants strangers calling in the dark.”
They entered the barn, let their hands find the ladder, and then climbed into the loft. Through a space between boards, the fugitives could see the cabin window’s glow.
“I’m hungry,” the youth complained. “Gimme that lantern and I’ll get us some apples.”
“No,” his companion said. “You think a man going to help them that stole from him?”
“Ain’t gonna miss a few apples.”
The man ignored him. They settled their bodies into the straw and slept.
A cowbell woke them, the animal ambling into the barn, a man in frayed overalls following with a gallon pail. A scraggly gray beard covered much of his face, some streaks of brown in his lank hair. He was thin and tall, and his neck and back bowed forward as if from years of ducking. As the farmer set his stool beside the cow’s flank, a gray cat appeared and positioned itself close by. Milk spurts hissed against the tin. The fugitives peered through the board gaps. The youth’s stomach growled audibly. “I ain’t trying to,” he whispered in response to his companion’s nudge. When the bucket was filled, the farmer aimed a teat at the cat. The creature’s tongue lapped without pause as the milk splashed on its face. As the farmer lifted the pail and stood, the youth shifted to see better. Bits of straw slipped through a board gap and drifted down. The farmer did not look up, but his shoulders tensed and his hand clenched the pail tighter. He quickly left the barn.
“You done it now,” the man said.
“He gonna have to see us sometime,” the youth replied.
“But now it’ll be with a gun aimed our direction,” Viticus hissed. “Get your sorry self down that ladder.”
They climbed down and saw what they’d missed earlier.
“Don’t like the look of that none,” the youth said, nodding at the rope dangling from a loft beam.
“Then get out front of this barn,” his companion said. “I want that white man looking at empty hands.”
Once outside, they could see the farm clearly. Crop rows were weed-choked, the orchard unpruned, the cabin itself shabby and small, two rooms at most. They watched the farmer go inside.
“How you know he got a gun when he hardly got a roof over his head?” the youth asked. “The Colonel wouldn’t put hogs in such as that.”
“He got a gun,” the man replied, and set the lantern on the ground with the burlap tote.
A crow cawed as it passed overhead, then settled in the cornfield.
“Don’t seem mindful of his crop,” the youth said.
“No, he don’t,” the man said, more to himself than to his companion.
The youth went to a corner of the barn and peeked toward the cabin. The farmer came out, a flintlock in his right hand.
“He do have a gun and it already cocked,” the youth said. “Hellfire, Viticus, we gotta light outta here.”
“Light out where?” his companion answered. “We past where that map can take us.”
“Shouldn’t never have hightailed off,” the youth fretted. “I known better but done it. We go back, I won’t be tending that stable no more. No, suh, the Colonel will send me out with the rest of you field hands.”
“This white man’s done nothing yet,” the man said softly. “Just keep your hands out so he see the pink.”
But the youth turned and ran into the cornfield. Shaking tassels marked his progress. He didn’t stop until he was in the field’s center. The older fugitive grimaced and stepped farther away from the barn’s mouth.
The farmer entered the pasture, the flintlock crooked in his arm. Any indication of his humor lay hidden beneath the beard. The older fugitive did not raise his hands, but he turned his palms outward.
The white man approached from the west. The sunrise made him squint.
“I ain’t stole nothing, mister,” the black man said when the farmer stopped a few yards in front of him.
“That’s kindly of you,” the farmer replied.
The dawn’s slanted brightness made the white man raise a hand to his brow.
“Move back into that barn so I can feature you better.”
The black man glanced at the rope.
“Pay that rope no mind,” the farmer said. “It ain’t me put it up. That was my wife’s doing.”
The fugitive kept stepping back until both of them stood inside the barn. The cat reappeared, sat on its haunches watching the two men.
“Where might you hail from?” the farmer asked.
The black man’s face assumed a guarded blankness.
“I ain’t sending you back yonder, if that’s your fearing,” the farmer said. “I’ve never had any truck with them that would. That’s why you’re up here, ain’t it, knowing that we don’t?”
The black man nodded.
“So where you run off from?”
“Down in Wake County, Colonel Barkley’s home place.”
“Got himself a big house with fancy rugs and whatnot, I reckon,” the farmer said, “and plenty more like you to keep it clean and pretty for him.”
The farmer appeared satisfied. He did not uncock the hammer, but the barrel now pointed at the ground.
“You know the way cross the line to Tennessee?”
“It ain’t a far way, but you’ll need a map, especially if you lief to stay clear of outliers,” the white man said. “You get here last night?”
“Did you help yourself to some of them apples?”
The black man shook his head.
“You got food in your tote there?”
“You must be hungry then,” the farmer said. “Get what apples you want. There’s a spring over there too what if your throat’s dry. I’ll go to the cabin and fix you a map.” The white man paused. “Fetch some corn to take if you like, and tell that othern he don’t have to hide in there lest he just favors it.”
The farmer walked back toward the cabin.
“Come out, boy,” Viticus said.
The tassels swayed, and the youth reappeared.
“You hear what he say?”
“I heard it,” the youth answered, and began walking toward the orchard.
They ate two apples each before going to the spring.
“Never tasted water that cold, and it full summer,” the youth said when he’d drunk his fill. “The Colonel say it snows here anytime and when it do you won’t see no road nor nothing. Marster Helm’s house boy run off last summer, the Colonel say they found him froze stiff as a poker.”
“You believing that then you a chucklehead,” Viticus said.
“I just telling it,” the youth answered.
“Uh-huh,” his elder said, but his eyes were not on the youth but on something in the far pasture.
Two mounds lay side by side, marked with a single creek stone. Upturned earth sprouted a few weeds, but only a few. The youth turned from the spring and looked as well.
“Lord God,” he said. “This place don’t long allow a body to rest easy.”
“Come on,” Viticus said.
The fugitives stepped back through the orchard and waited in front of the barn. The farmer was on his way back, a bucket in one hand and the flintlock in the other.
“Why come him to still haul that gun?” the youth asked.
The man’s lips hardly moved as he spoke.
“Cause he ain’t fool enough to trust two strangers, ’specially after you cut and run.”
The farmer’s eyes were on the youth as he crossed the pasture. He set the bucket before them and studied the youth’s face a few more moments, then turned to the older fugitive.
“There’s pone and sorghum in there,” the farmer said, nodding at the bucket. “My daughter brung it yesterday. She’s nary the cook her momma was, but it’ll stash in your belly.”
“Thank you, suh,” the youth said.
“I brung it for him, not you,” the farmer said.
The older fugitive did not move.
“Go ahead,” the farmer said to him. “Just fetch that pone out the bucket and strap that sorghum on it.”
“Thank you, suh,” the older fugitive said, but he still did not reach for the pail.
“What?” the white man asked.
“If I be of a mind to share …”
The white man frowned.
“He don’t deserve none, but it’s your stomach to miss it, not mine.”
The older fugitive took out a piece of the pone and the cistern of sorghum. He swathed the bread in syrup and offered it to the youth, who took it without a word. Neither sat in the grass to eat but remained standing. When they’d finished, the older fugitive set the cistern carefully in the bucket. He stepped back and thanked the farmer again, but the farmer seemed not to hear. His blue eyes were on the youth.
“You belonged to this Colonel Barkley feller too?”
“Yes, suh,” the youth said.
“Been on his place all your life.”
“And your momma, she been at the Colonel’s a while before you was born.”
“The Colonel, got red hair, has he?” the farmer asked.
“You know the Colonel?” the youth asked.
“Naw, just his sort,” the farmer answered. “You call him Colonel. Is he off to the war?”
“And he is a colonel, I mean rank?”
“Yes, suh,” the youth answered. “The Colonel got him up a whole regiment to take north with him.”
“A whole regiment, you say.”
The white man spat and wiped a shirtsleeve across his mouth.
“I done my damnedest to keep my boy from it,” he said. “There’s places up here conscripters would nary have found him, but he set out over to Tennessee anyway. You know the last thing I told him?”
The fugitives waited.
“I told him if he got in the thick of it, look for them what hid behind the lines with fancy uniforms and plumes in their hats. Them’s the ones to shoot, I said, cause it’s them sons of bitches started this thing. That boy could drop a squirrel at fifty yards. I hope he kilt a couple of them.”
The older fugitive hesitated, then spoke.
“He fight for Mr. Lincoln, do he?”
“Not no more,” the farmer said.
To the west, the land rose blue and jagged. The older fugitive let his gaze settle on the mountains before turning back to the farmer. The youth settled a boot toe into the grass, scuffed a small indentation. They waited as they had always waited for a white man, be it overseer, owner, now this farmer, to finish his say and dismiss them.
“The Colonel,” the farmer asked, “he up in Virginia now?”
“Yes, suh,” the older fugitive said, “least as I know.”
“Up near Richmond,” the youth added. “That’s what the Missus’s cook heard.”
The farmer nodded.
“Black niggers to do his work and now white niggers to do his fighting,” he said.
The sun was full overhead now. Beads of sweat glistened on the white man’s brow, but he did not raise a hand to wipe them away. The youth cleared his throat while staring at the scuff mark he’d made on the ground. The farmer looked only at the older fugitive now.
“I need you to understand something, and there’s nary a way to understand it without the telling,” the farmer said to the other man. “Them days after we got the word, I’d wake of the night and Dorcie wouldn’t be next to me. I’d find her sitting on the porch, just staring at the dark. Then one night I woke up and she wasn’t on the porch. I found her here in this barn.”
The farmer paused, as if to allow some comment, but none came.
“Me and Dorcie got three daughters alive and healthy, and their young ones is too. You’d figure that would of been enough for her. You’d think it harder on a father to lose his onliest son, knowing there’d be never a one to carry on the family name after you ain’t around no more. But he was the youngest, and womenfolk near always make a fuss over a come-late baby.”
“That rope there in the barn,” the farmer said, lifting a barlow knife from his overall pocket. “I’ve left it dangling all these months ’cause I pondered it for my ownself, but every time I made ready to use it, something stopped me.”
The farmer nodded at a ball of twine by the stable door and tossed the knife to the older fugitive.
“Cut off a piece of that twine nigh long as your arm.”
The fugitive freed the blade from the elk-bone casing. He stepped into the barn’s deep shadow and cut the twine. The farmer motioned with the flintlock.
“Tie his hands behind his back.”
The other man hesitated.
“If you want to get to Tennessee,” the farmer said, “you got to do what I tell you.”
“I don’t like none of this,” the youth muttered, but he did not resist as his companion wrapped the rope twice around his wrists and secured it with a knot.
“Toss me my barlow,” the farmer said.
The fugitive did and the farmer slipped the knife into his front pocket.
“All right then,” the farmer said, and nodded at the tote. “You got fire?”
“Got flint,” the other man said.
The farmer nodded and removed a thin piece of paper from his pocket.
“Bible paper. It’s all I had.”
The older fugitive took the proffered paper and unfolded it.
“That X is us here,” the farmer said, and pointed at a mountain to the west. “You head cross this ridge and toward that mountain. You hit a trail just before it and head right. There comes a creek soon and you go up it till it peters out. Climb a bit more and you’ll see a valley. You made it then.”
“And him?” the man said of the youth.
“Ain’t your concern.”
“It kindly is,” the man said.
“Go on now and you’ll be in Tennessee come nightfall.”
The youth’s shoulders were shaking. He looked at his companion and then at the white man.
“You got no cause to tie me up,” the youth said. “I ain’t gonna be no trouble. You tell him, Viticus.”
“He’d not be much bother to take with me,” the older fugitive said.
The farmer’s eyes settled on the other man’s shoulder.
“From the looks of that scar, I’d notion you to be glad I’m doing it,” the farmer said. “I’d think every time you looked at that red hair of his you’d want to kill him yourself.”
“I didn’t mean to hide from you,” the youth said, his breathing short and fast now. “I just seen that gun and got rabbity.”
“Go on now,” the farmer told the older fugitive.
T wo hours later, he came to the creek. The burlap tote hung over one shoulder and the lantern hung from the other. He began the climb. The angled ground was slick and he grabbed rhododendron branches to keep from tumbling back down.
There was no shingle or handbill proclaiming he’d entered Tennessee, but when he crested the mountain and the valley lay before him, he saw a wooden building below, next to it a pole waving the flag of Lincoln. He stood there in the late-afternoon light, absorbing the valley’s sudden expansiveness after days in the mountains. The land rippled out and appeared to reach all the way to where the sun and earth merged. He shifted the twine so it didn’t rub the ridge of his scar. Something furrowed his brow a few moments. Then he moved on and did not look back.