Excerpt of Freedom Road

Script embedded in HTML

Freedom Road

New Orleans, March, 1860


The sleek schooner slid slowly toward its berth at the New Orleans docks. Its huge sails were neatly secured and the deck made ready for landing by the anxious crew eager for a night of drinking and revelry. They wouldn’t have trouble finding whatever suited their appetite at that port city. Whisky, food and women were available at any of the many drinking dens along the docks. There were many places that provided cheap thrills at night and a guarantee of empty pockets and a headache the next day. The crew and passengers were more than ready to put their feet on firm ground. They’d been at sea twenty-nine days, sailing west on the trade winds, far south of their departure point at Plymouth, England. 

A young man stood on the stern at the ship’s rail, aside from the sailors and other passengers as the vessel slowly cut its way through the water. He looked out of place by himself on the deck. Standing several inches over six feet tall, he appeared to be well conditioned. The man’s handsome Negro features and clean shaven jaws were accented with clear, dark eyes. He was alone at the rail, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of New Orleans as the ship slid through the waters. He looked no more than twenty-five years old and wore a fashionable, well tailored black suit of clothes. His white shirt had an upturned starched collar and was highlighted with a dark cravat carefully knotted under his chin. A gold watch chain passed from a button hole on his vest to the pocket below his left breast. His wardrobe was topped off with a stylish gray, high-crowned felt hat.
A wide smile crossed his face as he acknowledged to himself the completion of this leg of his journey. He clutched the handle of his satchel a little tighter as he thought back on all the hard work of the last five years. The parchment document rolled up inside the canvas bag provided proof of his accomplishment and would pave the way to his future.

With only a little seasickness during the first few days, the voyage was what he needed. It allowed his body to rest. He’d worked hard, pushing himself, especially during the past year, both day and night to finish his advanced studies in Scotland.  During the voyage, he slept, rested and planned his future. Soon he’d be able to do what he’d been destined to do. He could finally teach. 

The ship’s bell interrupted his reverie, ringing four times, chiming the beginning of the early evening watch –– six o’clock. He verified the time by slipping his watch from the vest pocket, popping the cover open and glancing at the watch face. Time had become more important to him, now that he was getting closer to home. He’d been away from home and family such a long time. 
He rubbed the filigree engraving on the surface of the watch cover as he thumbed it closed. He remembered the day Will Bowman presented it to him as a gift in this same town five years earlier after outfitting him with a new wardrobe at the beginning of his new adventure. Every time he looked at the watch, it reminded of home, family and the Bowmans. He’d never owned a watch before and he’d never been without it since he received it as a special gift. 

With the coming of dark, the sounds along the docks of the work gangs singing their chants as they loaded and unloaded heavy cargo died away. The bosses busied themselves re-attaching leg irons to the slaves for the evening march to their quarters. 
The young man heard other voices from the street and buildings across from the docks. Laughter from the early evening drinkers in the pubs wafted his way. The fish vendors made their final calls for the day as they shut down their vendor carts. The lamp lighter moved from one dim lamp to the other as the sky darkened. 
The familiar ship’s stench of dirty bodies in close quarters gave way to a different scent. If the odor hadn’t been so overwhelming, the young man may have thought it to be exotic. He recognized the fragrance as a combination of many factors that in sum were just the stink of a city by the water. He’d smelled cities like it in Scotland and England, but New Orleans had its own special aroma. It reflected the essence of the river; dead fish and rotting organic matter along with mud, wood smoke and horse droppings. A strong complement of spices combined in food being cooked in that special way added a fragrance that only happens in New Orleans. 

Three men watched and took inventory of the passengers and crew as the clipper glided slowly into its berth, and the sailors held it fast to the moorings with thick ropes. The men hid themselves in the shadows against a brick wall of an alley that led away from the waterfront street. Empty and broken bottles, garbage and bricks that had fallen away from the buildings littered the ground around them. They were looking for their next target. 
New Orleans had more than its share of pickpockets and thieves. These were just three –– too lazy to work as long as they found easy prey. There were always plenty of drunken sailors or transients passing through that were ripe for picking. 
Although different in physical size, the three looked similar; dirty bodies and clothes that looked as if they had come from a rag bin, scruffy, unshaved faces and not one bit of civility among the three. 
“Whatcha think, boys?” Gaston, the tallest and leanest said. He spat a brown stream of tobacco juice, exposing several missing teeth in his gaping mouth as he moved his wad of chew to a new spot in his jaw. His long hair hung in oily strings under his dirty, slouch hat. 
“I see a bunch of young sailors that we can take after they nurse their cups awhile,” Charlie, the shorter, wiry one said. 
“Yeah, but do ya’ll see what I see?” Red said. Red was about the same height as Charlie but had a stocky build, appeared younger and wore a shock of bright orange hair and beard. “Look down by the stern, away from the others. There’s a big nigger standin’ over there all by hisself.” 
“Ooh, he is a big boy,” Gaston said, grinning. “Why, lookie there. He’s all gussied up like some high and mighty dandy. Where’d you think he got them clothes?”
“Stole ‘em –– where else?” Red said. “Wonder where his master is?”
“Don’t see none,” Charlie said. “You boys thinkin’ what I’m thinkin?”

William Jefferson, who’d been called Willy as a baby and young child and then Billy the rest of his life at his request, waited patiently as the other passengers disembarked from the ship down the gangplank. He followed the last passenger off the ship onto the wharf. He carried his canvas satchel in one hand and a cotton bag with a change of clothes slung over his shoulder. He walked past the several carriages for hire that were boarding passengers. He had no need to leave the dock area as he would be seeking ship passage for the next leg of his journey in the morning. That night he just needed food and a place to sleep. 

          While in Scotland, Billy experienced a limited opportunity to travel around the British Isles and felt comfortable traveling. But in New Orleans, he considered himself in hostile territory –– hostile for him, anyway. He was deep in slave country. An unaccompanied Negro man just didn’t travel alone in the South. 
He’d traveled through Texas, Louisiana and New England, and knew what to expect on the road, and how to get food and lodging. But then, he’d always been accompanied by a white man. 
He believed, however, that his training, maturity, experience and appearance as a gentleman would see him through. If not, the documents that he carried would provide safe passage. 

He saw a sign for an inn about a block down the street. He knew that if the innkeeper used colored help, he may be able to negotiate a place to sleep in the servant’s quarters and get a meal as well. He quickened his step on the now darkened street to pass a couple of pubs and other businesses between him and the inn. 

Someone suddenly crashed against him. 
“What the . . . ?” The attack came from behind. Pain shot through his right arm as the thief wrenched his canvas bag away.  He turned and swung the bag off his left shoulder, hitting the fleeing thief and causing him to stumble, but he didn’t go down. The wiry bandit ran back the way he came, clutching the satchel to his chest. 
“Stop –– Thief!” Billy called and ran after the man. Bystanders shrank away. The robber darted into an alley and disappeared into the dark. Billy followed and chased him about thirty feet into the alley. He stopped to listen. The running footsteps melted into silence. Darkness closed around him. He could see nothing. His own hard breathing echoed through the silence. His heart pounded against his chest. The dripping of leaking water into a puddle and the skittering of rats through the rotting garbage around his feet were the only other sounds he heard. 
He sensed motion behind him. He started to turn but a crushing blow to his back caused his chest to fly forward. His head and arms were swept backward. He went to his knees. Before his body collapsed to the ground, he received another blow; this time to the back of his head. Billy’s vision went black and he lost consciousness before his head hit the ground. 

Gaston stood, breathing heavily as he leaned on the stout ax handle, minus the ax head, catching his breath and looking at the man at his feet. 
“Woo-hoo! You took him down like a sack o’ taters, Gaston.” Red said, emerging from the darkness. Behind him came Charlie, carrying the satchel. 
“You got ‘em just in time, Gaston,” Charlie said. “I couldn’t hold my breath much longer back there. Grab that other bag and let’s get outta here.” 
“You crazy?” Gaston looked up at the two men standing over him as he attempted to roll the large man over. “Whatever’s in them bags is nothin’. The real prize is right here.” Gaston nodded at the prostrate figure on the ground. “Look at this nigger. He’ll be worth hundreds if he don’t die on us. I whapped him purty good on the back of the head.
“You boys help me drag him further in the alley and get him turned over, then go get me a hand cart or somethin’ to move him. He’s too big to carry. I’ll wait here an’ keep an eye on him.”
“We ain’t got no cart.” Red said as he helped tug the large body several more feet into the darkness. “Where we gonna get a cart?” 
Gaston sighed and looked at his companions. “Red, what do you do for a livin’?” 
“Oh.” Red said. “Come on Charlie. Let’s go get us a cart.” 

Gaston looked at Billy and the two bags. Going through the bags could wait. He couldn’t examine them because of the darkness. He had, however, waited for his companions to leave to search the body on the ground. 
“Nice,” he said as he pulled the watch from Billy’s breast pocket. He’d seen light glitter off the gold chain from what little light made its way into the alley. He quickly unfastened the chain’s fob from Billy’s vest button hole and shoved the watch and chain into his own pocket. He felt around Billy’s chest until he found a leather wallet. It was buttoned in the inside coat pocket. He removed it and took it to the corner by the boardwalk to find enough light to examine its contents. He opened it and found it loaded with cash. “Damn!” he whispered, grinning and thumbing through the bills. Counting it out, he found it to be a hundred and eighty dollars. He looked back and forth as he shoved a hundred and twenty into his pocket and tucked the remaining sixty back inside. The wallet also contained two folded pieces of paper that he left alone. Returning to the form on the ground, he replaced the wallet inside the coat, checked to see if the man was still breathing, grinned at his good fortune, spat a stream of tobacco juice into the dirt, and waited for the cart.

Fifteen minutes later he heard Charlie and Red rolling a hand cart through the alley. It stunk of old fish. 
“We’d been back sooner but Charlie had trouble picking the lock on the chain,” Red said, rolling his eyes. 
“You ever tried to pick a lock that you ain’t never seen before with a little ole piece of rusty wire?” Charlie said in his defense. “Well, I’ll tell ya, it ain’t easy, ‘specially with someone whinin’ in your ear that it stinks too much. The fishmonger’s place is the closest I know where we could get a cart. Anyway, it’s a damn cart and here it is. Now Red, quit your whinin’.”
“Both of ya shut up and help me get him in there.” Gaston said. “Red, you get one arm, Charlie you get the other and I’ll get his feet.”
Within a few minutes they parked the cart outside the back door of an abandoned warehouse, three blocks off the water. The old building had once been a sugar warehouse. Unused for many years, deterioration had taken place. The rotting roof had fallen away in several places in the front of the building, but those three slept in a corner room at the back of the building. 
“Come on, bring him inside and get rid of the cart,” Gaston said. “Red, take that cart back over to front street where the fish man will find it in the morning. Can’t nobody say that I ain’t got a warm heart –– returnin’ a man’s cart.” He chuckled.
“Why do I have to take it,” Red whined. “You two gonna split up the kit while I’m gone, ain’t ya?” 
Gaston gritted what teeth he had left and balled his fist as he approached Red. “I’m tellin’ ya to do it ‘cause I’m dammed tired of listening to your whining. Now get!” He spat a stream of tobacco at Red’s back as he scooted out the door. “Damn idiot.” Gaston lit the oil lamp, illuminating the room and turned to his new investment. 
They placed Billy along a wall on the floor and started removing his clothes. “Charlie,” Gaston said, “we’re gonna need to secure him ‘fore he wakes up. Go get them shackles we used last time while I start getting’ these clothes off him.”
Billy remained unresponsive as they wrestled him out of his clothes. Gaston checked him from time to time to verify that he was still breathing. He rolled him onto an old cotton sack and covered him with a dirty blanket. He inspected Billy’s injuries as he got him undressed and found the blow to the back left a large bruise and swelling. He couldn’t tell if there were any broken bones. He guessed maybe there could be some cracked ribs. He’d have some sore muscles though. The head injury concerned Gaston more than the back bruise, though. A large swollen area covered the entire back of his head. 
Charlie soon returned with the shackles and restrained Billy’s hands and locked a foot to a vertical support post. 
Red returned from dumping the cart, anxious to see what bounty the young Negro brought them. “Now y’all ain’t already looked in them bags did ya?”
“No, we saved all that till you got back.” Gaston said. “First, I’ll show you what I found in his pockets.” He held his closed fist out, away from his body and let the pocket watch drop from his hand but held the end of the chain. Charlie reached for the dangling watch, popped the cover and examined the watch. “That’s a nice one.” he handed it off to Red. 
Next, Gaston produced the long, thin wallet. “Now I think we ougthta look in here.” He opened it with the enthusiasm of a child opening a Christmas present. First he pulled out the two pieces of neatly folded paper. Unfolding the first, he revealed the page filled with neat script. 
“What does it say?” Charlie asked. 
“How am I supposed to know?” Gaston said. “Just looks like scribbles to me.” Then he unfolded the second paper. The script contained flourishes and a much fancier style of script than the first paper. The bottom of the page held a one-inch wide drop of red wax with a deep image pressed into it. The image looked like a lion’s head with plumes and flags at the top and bottom. 
“That looks mighty fancy,” Charlie said, looking over Gaston’s shoulder. “Wonder what it means?” 
“Ah, it’s just fancy paper. It don’t mean nothin’,” Gaston said and shoved the papers back inside the wallet. “Now this here does mean somethin’.” His lips spread into a gapped-tooth grin. He reached inside, drew out the bills and counted the sixty dollars and waved them in the air. He divided it three ways and handed the others their share. Of course, he made no mention of the one hundred and twenty dollars that he had already secreted in his pocket. Then he reached for the satchel. Opening it he found a fourteen-inch-wide roll of thin, stiff, sheepskin parchment tied with a ribbon. Unrolling it, he found a rectangular shaped document with carefully scripted text, much more elegant looking than either of the paper letters. Some lines of words on the parchment were bigger than others. Along the bottom, underneath the words was another imprint sealed in wax. That wax seal was bigger than the one on the folded paper in the wallet, and it held a very elaborate imprint pressed into the wax. 
The three men examined it by the oil lamp. “That boy sure likes stuff with lots of writin’ on it.” Gaston said. “Now what’d you thank a nigger’d be doin’ with that stuff?” The others looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads.
Gaston reached in the satchel again and withdrew a soft cloth bag with a drawstring at the top. Loosening the string, he shook out the contents onto a table. They included a shaving brush, a straight razor folded in its cover, a mug with hard soap inside, a comb, a pair of scissors and a small rectangular mirror. Gaston grabbed for the razor, opened it, tested the fineness of its blade with his thumbnail and pocketed it. “I’m keepin’ this, ‘case I ever have to slit a throat.” He looked directly at Red as he spoke. 
Next, he pulled out a fine, polished wooden box made of dark rosewood about ten inches wide, twelve inches long and four inches deep. When he opened the hinged lid, it revealed compartments for writing paper and accessories. Soft green velvet fabric lined the interior. Along with a supply of writing paper and envelopes, it contained a small ink bottle and wax to seal the glass stopper, a writing quill and a small pen knife. “I know what that is,” Gaston said “That’s used for writin’ letters to folks. I seen a man do it once. He dipped the feather in that black stuff and made his marks on the paper. It looked just like them other papers we seen.”
“Now I’m really wonderin’ ‘bout that nigger,” Charlie said. “He musta done killed some fancy man and took his clothes and all them papers and stuff. I think he done killed his master, an’ that’s why he’s on the run.”
“Betcha there’s a bounty on his head,” Red said, grinning and rubbing his hands together. 
“We ain’t messin’ with no lawmen and bounties.” Gaston said. “We’ll get our money off this boy, but it won’t be from no bounty.” 
He reached back in the satchel and found that the rest of the items inside were books –– four of them. “Why lookie here,” Gaston said holding one of the books up in the air. I seen one of them before. That’s got holy words in it. That’s what preachers carry around and preach about.”
“I still don’t get it,” Red said. “What’s this big nigger doin’ with all this readin’ an’ writin’ stuff? Everybody knows they can’t read and write. Why, they ain’t even real people like us. They’s more like livestock. They ain’t got no real brains like we do. They can’t think for themselves. All they’s fit for is hard work. Look at that boy there. That big ole buck there ain’t made for readin’–– he’s made for workin’.” 
“Yeah, everybody knows that,” Gaston said, “but whatever the case, he done brung us money. I know where I can sell all that stuff. Now, what’s in this other bag?” 
Gaston fished around in the second bag and found it loaded with clothing. It contained a suit coat and pants, several shirts, some underwear, another pair of shoes and several pairs of socks. Holding up the suit coat to check for size and condition, he said, “Now look at this, he’s not only wearing white man’s clothes, he’s carrying around a bunch more in this sack, just like what we took off him. That boy don’t know it now, but he’s gonna make us rich.”

Freedom Road

Buy The Complete Version of This Book at Amazon.com

Website Builder