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Was it safe? Susa slowly nudged the lid of the wooden box in which she had been hiding since noon. She poked a finger out, and through the narrow crack she strained her eyes to see in the evening dusk. Everything looked quiet but you could never be certain. Would someone come to get her or should she find a place to hide and hope to get some sleep? With a little luck, she would soon find a new life where she would be free to make her own choices.
It had been a long day. At dawn she had left the plantation where she had been born, she guessed, about seventeen years ago, and followed the wooden rail fences toward her destination. Hopefully, anybody who saw her would assume she was bringing water to the work crew in the upper field. She had thought about escape for many months but had not told anyone she was leaving. That way, nobody could be forced to say she intended to run away to freedom in the north.
But Susa was a house servant, not a field hand, and the rough ground had taken a toll on her feet. She sought the shelter of some scrub trees and followed them down to the stream. The water felt wonderful as she trudged on. The water was a good idea, she thought to herself, because the dogs would not be able to track her scent. That's how her friend Ben had been captured. The dogs had followed his trail up the road and across the pasture. He had been brought back in chains and beaten, but that had not lessened Susa's will to escape. She would just have to be more careful.
She had heard the whispers about people who were willing to help slaves get away. Some of the helpers were white. They hid you in their basement or gave you a ride under a pile of vegetables being taken to market. They gave you new clothes so you would look like all the other people in town. All you had to do was find the right people and you would be safe.
But how to do that? Her friend Matty had left last year and never returned. Before leaving she had whispered in Susa's ear about places up north where people did not have slaves. And she spoke, too, of a minister at the white church with a green door in the local village who would help get you started on your way to freedom. He and his wife would pass you on to somebody else who would bring you to a safe house where you could rest before starting the next part of the journey. How many weeks would all of this take? Susa had no idea. She just knew she had to try and, no matter how tired she became, she had to keep going. Staying a slave was not an option.
The stream passed under a bridge near the edge of the village and Susa climbed up to the side of the road, trying to clean her feet on the soft green grass along the way. The minister would not appreciate her dragging mud into his church. She had to make a good impression in order to gain his help. Looking off into the distance she could see a spire, so that must be the church. She could not see anybody, nor hear any traffic coming along the road, so Susa headed for the spire.
Luckily, the minister was outside sweeping the cracked wooden steps. From the tall fence at the side of the cemetery she could see him sweat as he laboured. Should she just walk up and introduce herself? What should she say? "Hello, I'm Susa and I want you to help me escape?" If someone saw them together they might call the sheriff and both of them would be arrested.
As she was trying to decide what to do, a horse and wagon pulled up and the driver shouted at the minister that he was ready to pick up the wooden boxes and take them to the store in the next county. The two men piled six crates onto the wagon and pulled up the tailgate. Then the driver walked down to the loading dock for a smoke. Susa crept forward along the fence and the minister spotted her. He held up his hand in a gesture that said "stop," then pretended to be patting the horse. Susa crouched down close to the fence and waited. She was so frightened she could hardly breathe and she could feel the front of her smock moving in rhythm with her pounding heartbeat.
The minister pointed to the fence and motioned for her to run along it toward him. When she reached the wagon, he held up the lid of one of the boxes and said two words: "Get in."
Susa squeezed in, skinning her knees and banging her elbow on the rough wood. The lid slammed down on top of her. It was hot in the box. Not much air came in through the cracks around the lid, and it smelled of newly-cut wood.
She could hear the driver's steps on the gravel as he returned, then felt the wagon jolt as he climbed aboard. The horse pulled forward and Susa was tossed around inside the box. It was an endless trip. For the rest of the afternoon the wagon rattled along the bumpy road, stopping only for the driver to take a couple of breaks along the way. Eventually the wagon came to a halt at the back of a large building. The driver unhitched the horse and disappeared into the barn. Everything was quiet, for now. But Susa was hungry and thirsty and every joint in her body hurt. What should she do? She had to get out and walk, but in what direction and how far?
There was no turning back now. But if her luck held, she would soon be a personnot a piece of property. Susa gathered up all her courage and slowly, very slowly, pushed open the lid of the box.