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.”