"My name is Will Spencer. I come from a little town called Atwater, Ohio, and I bought this wagon to haul goods. But lately, I’ve been hauling more people than goods."
Will Spencer’s family has always helped runaway slaves passing through their town as they travel the Underground Railroad. But Will is ready to leave Atwater, Ohio, and start a life of his own as a peddler seeking his fortune. When a runaway slave asks Will to help steal his older brother out of the South to keep him from being sold into the hard life of the cotton fields, Will amends his plan and begins an adventure that will take him into the heart of slavery’s evil.
As he makes his way from Ohio to Kentucky, Will discovers that people are not always what they seem and that it’s not always easy to tell right from wrong. After all, according to the law, stealing slaves is just as bad as robbing a man’s house. Does that mean Will Spencer is a common thief? Or is he a young man doing what’s right?
From the Trade Paperback edition.
About the Author
Katherine Ayres is the author of Family Tree, which has been named to several state award lists, and North by Night: A Story of the Underground Railroad. She is a founding member of the Playwright’s Lab at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. She teaches writing at Chatham College, where she also coordinates the Master of Arts program in children’s and adolescent writing.
Read an Excerpt
. . . the Railroad's character was engraven, as by a pen of fire, in the hearts and consciences of men, burning deeper and deeper. . . . H. U. Johnson
From Dixie to Canada
Remember, Tom, if you hear horses, don't speed up, no matter what."
"I know, Will. You told me that at least five times on the last ride."
"The last ride was practice," I replied. "This one's for real. We have a passenger under the floorboards, so you've got to be careful."
We sat in Papa's wagon heading north from Atwater to Ravenna, a trip I'd made so often, I could have dropped the reins, for my horses knew the way. But this time my horses weren't doing the pulling and my hands weren't holding the reins. My younger brother, Tom, was making his first trip, and I was making my last in the dim light of a quarter moon.
"That Noah, he seemed pretty scared," Tom said, lowering his voice to a whisper.
"You'd be scared too, if you were all alone in a strange Northern place, getting hauled from hither to yon by folks you didn't know. He didn't look much older than you, Tom. Imagine that."
"No thanks. I'd just as soon stay put. Lucky for me, I can."
We were lucky, I thought, at least Tom was. He liked Atwater, Ohio. Loved the land and the life of a farmer. Course, him loving it was lucky for me as well, for it meant Papa could count on Tom for help in the fields and would allow me to leave. Tomorrow at first light I would begin my new life. But I had one last trip to make, and there wasn't a soul I'd rather be making it with than Tom. I'd been driving for the Railroad on dark nights like thisone for years and was leaving my route to my brother.
As if reading my thoughts, he started in on me again, trying to talk me out of it. "You sure you really want to leave home? Think of Mama's cooking! A peddler's wagon can't be very comfortable, compared to our house. It's going to be mighty lonely with just your horses to talk to."
"My team's got more sense than most folks," I said. "A little peace and quiet will be a nice change from all the biddies of Atwater grinding our names in the mud."
Until three years ago, I'd liked our town and most of the people in it. But that was before my sister Lucy got herself caught transporting a slave baby north to Canada and claimed she was the child's mother to save its life. After that, Lucy couldn't come back, and now half the town treated the rest of us Spencers like we'd caught the plague. Somehow, it didn't bother Tom like it did me. He was kind of a duck, and the whispers and rumors rolled right off his back like water. Me, I answered every snub and insult with my fists, and I'd gotten tired of it all.
"Will, the Reverend told me Noah's been chased on his trip north," Tom said, his voice still quiet. "He's heard hounds baying and had to wade the creeks several nights."
That made me sit up straight. "All the more reason for us to be careful, then. You got your excuses ready if somebody stops us."
"Who's going to believe some girl would want me to come calling?" Tom demanded. "Even if I liked the notion, which I don't."
"Give it a year or two," I said, grinning. "Girls ain't so bad. Might even find you like kissing."
Tom rolled his eyes. "You won't get me kissing some girl. Trading spit, that's all it is."
"Maybe. But how will you know unless you give it a try?" I'd kissed a couple of girls and liked it just fine, but I was sixteen, nearly grown. Tom was just coming up on thirteen and still had a lot to learn.
His elbow poked me hard in the ribs just as my ears caught the sound of distant hoofbeats. He tensed beside me and I listened carefully. Sounded like more than one horse, and the riders were coming from behind, the dangerous direction--somebody might be tracking Noah.
A sweat broke out on my forehead, and I rapped on the floor of the wagon, warning Noah to be extra quiet. I hoped he wouldn't panic. "Remember, Tom, don't speed up. Makes you look like you've got something to hide."
"You want to take the reins, Will? I don't mind if you do." Tom's voice shook.
My fingers itched to grab the reins, but if Tom was going to take on the route, he'd have to take on the trouble that sometimes came with it. I slapped him lightly on the shoulder. "You drive. You'll do just fine."
He gave me a quick nod and sat straighter, squaring his shoulders. It was my turn to poke him in the ribs. "Relax. Don't go all stiff and nervous. Think about kissing again."
He chuckled and shook his head. "You going to tell me the names of all the girls you've kissed, since you're such an expert?"
As the horses grew closer, I could hear the voices of dogs yapping and knew I had to keep Tom from tensing up again. "Your first lesson in kissing is not to shout the girl's name to the world. Not if you want to kiss her more than once." I paused, then whispered, "Dogs, you hear them?"
"Nope. But I'll do what it takes."
That I could believe, for although I'd mostly been driving lately, before our sister Lucy got caught and the town grew suspicious, our family had run an underground Railroad station at our farm. Back then, Tom had helped plenty, even when he was pretty young.
The hoofbeats grew louder and closer, and the dogs set up a loud baying howl. Within minutes two strangers in dark clothing pulled even with us, one on each side of the wagon.
"Evening, gentlemen," I said, making my voice friendly and cheerful. "Hope you've got room to pass. Sorry if we're traveling too slow for you."
The man on my side answered in a gruff voice. "You could slow down and even stop, if you wouldn't mind. We'd like to talk to you."
"Sure thing," I replied. "Pull up there, Tom. Let's have a word with these fellas."
Tom pulled the team to a stop, and as he did, the two men reined in their horses and dismounted quickly. I swung down from the wagon and placed my body between them and the wagon bed. As soon as Tom had tied off the reins, he joined me. It was one of those times I blessed Papa's large size, for even though I wasn't all the way grown, I stood half a head taller than the men. I hoped that in the dark they wouldn't be able to tell how young Tom and I really were.