The dogs were getting closer and her terror was slipping into panic. She held her swollen belly as she ran through the woods, the hand of a small slave child clasped tight in hers. She knew if they were caught her secret would be out. Many lives would be in danger, and who knows what would happen to the child?
Reaching the swamps, they blundered in, the sucking mud of the marsh grasping at their legs. The child’s pace slowed as she grew tired and the night closed in around them.
“Missus, I can’t!” she cried.
“We have to sweetheart. We can’t stop!”
Feeling like her lungs were going to collapse, they pushed on into the deadly swamp.
We will never make it!
Fear ate away at her mind and fatigue took over. She was going to give birth right there in the middle of the swamps if they didn’t find cover to rest soon. Blinking sweat from her eyes, she desperately searched for a hiding spot. Catching sight of dense brush lurking out in front, she dove in, pulling the foliage around them concealing their presence from the eager slave traders.
The howling of the dogs grew deafening as they pulled their handlers through the swamp. Wet, muddy ground suctioned to their feet as they moved. The child’s fright overtook her and she began to sob. The woman covered her mouth as the lights from the torches lit up the swamp. She could hear the dogs sniffing, trying to catch their scent. Pulling the child to her, she tried to calm her trembling body, willing her to be silent.
She had come across the child hiding half-starved in the woods by her plantation. There was no time to plan a better escape. She couldn’t follow the usual channels. With the slave traders on their heels, she reacted without thinking. As they sprinted across the fields, one man yelled out, “It’s a bloody white woman with the child!”
We need to get to the swamps. It’s the only way we stand a chance.
Now—it was only minutes before they would be caught. If by some miracle, they escaped, they would starve to death or become prey to the low country predators. Her mind ran wild with these paralyzing thoughts, not realizing for a brief moment that the lights had dimmed, and the dog’s barking drifted further away. The child started to speak, but Olivia silenced her with a finger to her lips. They sat in complete stillness unsure if any of the slave catchers stayed behind.
The light from the full moon encased the swamp in an eerie glow. She lay in wait wrapped in the veil of the hanging vines of the cypress tree looming above them. Her bones rebelled from the chilling dampness setting in. She pulled the child closer, huddling together for warmth. Exhaustion carried the child away into sleep. She followed, descending into a restless sleep, plagued by baying hounds and cruel slavers.
Morning encompassed the swamp in a mist, making visibility unreliable. Cautiously, she parted the vines and stepped out of their hiding place. Her skin itched, and the child scratched feverishly from the mosquitoes that had made them a meal as they slept. Her ears tuned into the noise around them, from the trickling of a creek in the distance to the croaking of frogs.
They must turn back. It was suicide to go further into the swamps without food and water. The slave catchers had likely given up, thinking they had gone deeper in and gave them up to the environment.
Doubling back to the main road, she peeked up and down before stepping out. Finding it clear, they ran to the other side, keen on the coverage the trees provided. She peered over her shoulder making sure they weren’t being followed.
A scream escaped her lips as she collided with a solid chest of a human.
“Olivia for God’s sakes, what were you thinking?” The man grabbed her shoulders, giving her a shake.
“Ben!” She breathed a cry of relief.
“For the love of God, woman. You’re so impulsive!” he scolded with concern and affection for the woman he loved.
“I didn’t think. But now, that is neither here nor there.” Knowing the answer, she asked, “Does he know?”
“Yes. They came by the plantation in hopes of obtaining your husband’s and my help. They said it was a pregnant white woman they spotted with the child.”
“He is already beside himself with anger over us. Now he will surely turn me in.” She wrung her hands together in worry.
“He loves you, Olivia; he will help you.”
“I don’t know, Ben,” she fretted. But hastily, she turned her attention back to the matter at hand. “We need to get her out.”
Opening the saddlebags on his horse, Ben retrieved the clothes within. “Little miss, put these on,” he said, handing her the pants and shirt.
The child slipped the clothes on, frowning with displeasure at the boy’s attire.
Razor blade in hand he said, “This is going to hurt a little.”
The child’s wooly mane fell to the ground as he shaved her head. She wiggled slightly from the pain of the dry shave, but never let out a peep. Olivia gathered the evidence, hiding it beneath a nearby rock, along with the discarded blade.
Laying a blanket on the ground, he smiled down at the child. Gently stroking her cheek, he said, “We have to play hide and seek for a little longer, alright?”
She nodded, lying on the blanket as he motioned her to do.
Olivia knelt before the child. Kissing her cheek, she drew her in for a hug. “Be safe. May we meet again when you are grown,” she whispered into her ear.
Ben rolled her up and laid the blanket bundle across the rear of his horse. Tying her securely, he quickly kissed Olivia’s forehead. “We have delayed long enough.” He mounted his horse. “Now go!”
Gathering her muddy, torn skirts, she hurried toward the plantation. As the big oak trees came into view, her nerves surged with anticipation of what lay ahead.