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Sweet Chariot

by Catfish Russ

Thaddeus was hiding behind a wagon filled with provisions in the thickly fecund edge of a swamp. Jared had been shot a moment before and was lying face-down about twenty feet in front of the wagon, but Thaddeus couldn’t see him because of the high grass and uneven rough ground between them, and he was trying to get as flat as he possibly could.

Bullets were flying from the thick ridge of pines fifty yards from the swamp edge as troops from the Army of Northern Virginia had ambushed the supply train. A bunch of Confederates went down in the first volley and most of the survivors were yelling their heads off. “Bastards are on the ridge. Fire at the ridge!!! Captain Johns, where are you?... First Tennessee Volunteers, wheel left!!!”

Down behind him, three white boys stood up out of the grass and fired into the tree line at the same time. A returning enfilade of musket fire from the tree line cut them down. More yelling and screaming and someone cried for his mother. The Yankees laughed and started marching out of the tree line into the ravine.

Thad saw his moment and ran. He skipped along the edge of the swamp, tripped a couple of times, splashed heavily into the silty Fox Sedge, picked himself back up and lunged out of the kill zone.

“He’s runnin’,” someone yelled. “Shoot him.”

But no shots came as Thaddeus ran. The dark underbrush disappeared behind him as he cut a swath through the trail between the woods and the creek and headed north. When the crack of cannons was a distant echo, he stopped running, and found his way to the shady waterside.

Thaddeus had a small draw-string purse, and he dug it out. It contained two dimes, a good-luck doll his grand mother had sewn together, and a tin of soap powder. He found a spot behind high grass and Fox Sedge where clear water swirled into an eddy, took off his clothes and bathed. Then he washed his clothes and slept for a while on a sandy rock he shared with his drying pants and shirt. The afternoon went from stiflingly humid to gentle and cool, and an overcast sky played hide and seek with the sun as it began to descend.

Dressed, slept and rested, Thaddeus began to look around to see if there was something to eat. Some berries or nuts or soup grasses. He scrounged around and found some sheep sorrel and chicory. The chicory root he dug out, washed and packed in his pouch, but not until he’d stripped down a piece to chew on.

Thaddeus had a plan. He knew how to find a trail and that people would greet him if he made it up to northern Maryland. They might not expect him without notice, but he was coming, nonetheless.

Something passed overhead and cast a giant shadow that made Thaddeus jump. He crouched as the giant shadow darkened his idyllic corner by the water, then above the canopy of oaks and pines and vines it moved off. Thad concluded that it had been the shadow of an observation balloon, or a strange high cloud. It was the only thing that could have darkened so much sky. It moved off to the west, where Thaddeus was about to head. He knew there was a trail on a ridge parallel to the one he was following, and it was marked with stacked stones. That trail leads to the northern end of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and to freedom.

His owner would torture and kill him if he was found. That meant there would be no capture. There couldn’t be. And, frankly, life for a slave in the north was no picnic. Thaddeus had heard they wouldn’t enslave you, but they wouldn’t hire you either. All he wanted was to find a place where he was needed, and free. Still, he was headed west to find that trail.

That would have to be tomorrow Thaddeus decided, and he started collecting the fallen branches of cottonwoods and pecan trees to sleep under. When the sun finally dipped down behind the tree cover, a small window of sky directly above Thaddeus revealed a clear night, bright stars and the quiet arc of the Milky Way. In two days he would be in Maryland, or perhaps farther. But he would continue north until he was as far away from the Confederacy as he could get.

The next morning came too soon. Before the sun was up Thaddeus heard voices: men, a group of them. He listened quietly, guessing that they were behind him, south of him on the path he had come up on. He distinctly heard the word “reward” and took it to mean that they were bounty-hunting him. Sooner than he wanted they were about fifty yards behind him, and he wondered if his best bet would be to stay put under the brush, or run for it.

They approached, chatting.

“McCellan’s a little girl. He and his nose-in-the-air Northern schoolboys can’t prevail unless they have overwhelming numbers, and I doubt they have that much manpower.”

“I give it a year before the Secession is a fact, and I give Lincoln a year before someone cuts him down.”

There were three of them each with a musket. They passed within five feet of him. They halted and stopped talking. Thaddeus’ heart jumped into his throat. One of them walked off and peed into the little pool he had bathed in.

After a moment they continued northward.

When he estimated they were a hundred yards up the trail, Thaddeus got up, collected his pouch and his sorrel and headed into the woods to the west.

On the way he came across a one-story ranch house, white wood siding, black shutters, meat smoker out back, all surrounded by wire. In the yard behind the house, a lone horse wandered around near a well. Thaddeus whistled to see if anyone would come to the window. He snuck through the fence and walked up behind an odorless outhouse and onto the back porch.

The back door to the kitchen was opened and the house looked abandoned. A bowl of rotten apples sat under a cabinet, but inside another cabinet Thaddeus found a tin of hardtack and a bag of dry beans. He also found a canvas and leather tote bag and put all of this and his pouch into it and slung it over his shoulder. He ate the hardtack and headed back out to the freedom trail.

The woods grew thick and difficult to get through. Once a feral pig went squealing ahead of him and he followed to see if it led to an easier path. It did, and by late noon, Thaddeus came to a ridge. He climbed it, took off his hat and sat and rested. On the other side of the hill was a dense wood and then another ridge across from him, about a quarter of a mile as the crow flies, and there was the trail to freedom. He could see three stacked stones under a Dutch elm, and he knew that was the beginning of the end of his old life.

It’s hard to say what exactly happened next because when you see something far outside of your range of expertise, far beyond your experience, it’s hard to evaluate what is real and what isn’t.

Sitting on top of the ridge, just beside the stacked-stones trail was a big iron machine, with coils and pulleys and antennae and windows like an ironclad. There were two very fat men looking to be repairing the machine. It was too far to tell, but they looked to be in big diving suits, having a heck of a time getting around.

The machine reflected the flat overcast sky and made a sound like steam escaping from a small valve at a constant rate. It buzzed and popped, even from this distance. This must be a warship, Thaddeus thought. There were no wheels at all. It looked burned along the bottom and it stood on four ladder legs. Each leg was a different height to make the machine level. The diving-bell men were trying to put something back on the bottom of the machine.

The strange men could not be Confederates, who were too poor and uneducated. They had to come from one of the Northern universities or factories. Or perhaps they came from across the ocean. Or maybe their machine was supposed to go under the ocean. Thaddeus couldn’t see why anyone would work in clothing like that.

Because the machine sat right on the trail, Thaddeus was afraid to finish his journey. What if it turned out that it was Confederate? Then he would be turned back and killed. Or worse. And if he didn’t find the trail, bounty hunters might start out after him.

He had to think about this. He could always try and sneak past it to the trail. Or he could continue through the thick woods to the north and then find an opening to the trail from the east. But trails were funny: they veered off and didn’t always go in straight lines. Hidden trails would suddenly stop, and stacked stones would lead to the new trail.

In the distance, to the south, he heard cannons. He would stay on this opposite ridge all night, he decided, and next morning perhaps the machine would be gone. The cannon fire he heard was just thunder, and a light rain rolled in behind it.

The diving-bell men sat under the machine as the rain showed up and made their day even worse. The machine looked to be big enough to take both the men and still have room. Thaddeus sat as close to an oak tree as he could and slept.

In his sleep, Thaddeus dreamt that he was flying. Swept upwards in a current he moved quickly through clouds and saw the verdant earth below. He was headed north and saw landmarks. The Raritan River, the Hudson, the Great Lakes, and beyond that he saw Canada. But he was not drawn to that.

Oddly he swooped upwards, or was swept upwards, and he headed for the night stars, the world shrinking behind him impossibly fast as he headed into the abyss of space. Snippets and hints of the dream floated around, he tried to find his place, where he was, what he was supposed to do next. But somehow he knew it was figured out already. In his sleep he met new and different people and found a new home. That he was sure of.

In the morning, Thaddeus saw that the machine was still there and the diving bell men were still working on it. He had decided to take his chance with them. Obviously they weren’t from Tennessee. They would never take him back there. That was the rub all along. He couldn’t chance that they would take him back to Tennessee.

He packed his bag, threw it over his shoulder and began to make his way down the hill and across the field that separated him and the iron machine and the freedom trail.

About halfway across he heard a crack of gunfire and felt a round whiz past his ear and began running. Behind him on the ridge he just occupied, two bounty hunters were drawing a bead on him.

On the opposing ridge, the two diving-bell men stopped and faced the gunfire. A plink indicated that one of the bounty hunters had taken a shot at the iron machine. A large black cloud emerged from the machine and made its way through the air towards the bounty hunters, holding together but flexing like a dog trying to get out of a bag.

Thaddeus ran hard, and made it to the base of the ridge holding the trail and the machine.

Behind him, the bounty hunters fired into the cloud with no effect and then turned and ran. The dark cloud chased them and enveloped them. First they struggled against it but then they lost their will and they dropped their guns and just stood there for a moment and stared. After a while they walked back home.

The diving-bell people stared down at him as he climbed the hill. Thaddeus reached the top and they stood and faced each other curiously. He saw the stacked stones to the side of the machine. He wondered if they would stop him from heading into the woods.

He looked at the iron machine. It was some sort of vessel on stilts, much bigger up close. Under the bottom was a door... or a staircase. It had hooks on the top of the stairs and it locked into place under a hatch.

Thaddeus deduced that they couldn’t lift the hatch and place it into the locking gears so they were stuck in their suits and outside the machine. They probably realized that they didn’t need their suits. The windows on their diving helmets were not closed.

The people in the suits didn’t look like regular people. They had small heads and large eyes and skinny bodies with thick leathery skin. Also, they were black. They were not like fish out of water, Thaddeus decided. They just couldn’t put the hatch ladder back. So he lifted it and placed it for them.

They walked up into the machine and looked down at Thaddeus and waited.

He looked around, thought about what he had here to look forward to, and climbed aboard.

Copyright © 2009 by Catfish Russ

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