My Wife My Dog Slave
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One day I got leave to go across the road, to get some clothes that we had left in a house just opposite our prison pen. I was accompanied by a friend named Henry Banks, who afterwards accompanied me in my many wanderings when I escaped. As soon as we got over we made our way through the back yard and then struck out for the bridge across the Rappahannock.
Being hailed three times as we crossed the bridge, we made no response but only hurried the faster; we soon reached Falmouth, a small place one and one-quarter miles from Fredericksburg. It lay in a sort of hollow at the base of a high hill. We ran and walked up the heights beyond Falmouth and skirted all along the woods until we heard the dread baying of the bloodhounds and then knew the alarm had been given and our pursuers were upon us. We had taken the precaution to bring with us some red onions and spruce pine for the purpose of rubbing our boots so as to divert the scent of the dogs.
We could just see the slave hunters with the pack of hounds gliding like a black thread in the distance and then we struck straight into the woods. We went up to a big leafy tree and commenced rubbing our backs vigorously against the bark. This was for the purpose of making the dogs think we had climbed it.
The scent of the onions and spruce pine we rubbed on our boots would not be followed by them, while the human scent on the bark would always claim their attention.
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Escaping slaves frequently have adopted this stratagem and got away successfully when almost captured. Well, on they came, and we could see their fierce eyes and foam-flecked tongues lolling out of their mouths as they rushed savagely after us. They were urged on by the shouts and curses of the slave hunters, and those who have ever been pursued by wolves would have some idea of the situation.
Many a poor fugitive slave has been torn limb from limb by those ferocious brutes set on by the human tigers behind them. We started away as soon as possible and heard the crew of demons as they surrounded the tree we had left, and then as we rushed madly off the deep baying sounds gradually died out in the distance. Night came but we tarried not.
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It was a matter of life or death, and liberty was before us. We traveled in the direction of Fitzhugh's farm where I had left my wife, and by hiding in thickets, swamps and caves in the day time and journeying nights, we at last reached the place. I saw my wife under cover of the darkness and imparted all my plans to her.
Banks and I kept together, knowing that union was strength, and we hid in a cave near the farm, that I had discovered in one of my previous wanderings. We staid there for three weeks, and then another change came upon my fortunes. The cave that Banks and I hid ourselves in, was situated at the head of what was known as Williams' creek, and the sides were very steep, in some places almost perpendicular. The spot chosen by us was where the bank shelved inwards, leaving a space of a few feet between its base and the water's edge. We had picked up an old spade in one of our midnight tramps, and dug quite a hole in the side of the bank so we could nearly stand upright, and had plenty of room to sleep in, as well as a place to roast corn or what other farm truck we could lay our hands on.
In order that we would not be smoked out, we dug a hole from the top of the bank clear through to our cave, a distance of some fifteen feet, and then fixed the top of our earthen stovepipe so it wouldn't be noticed, by covering it up with light branches and leaves.
The trees grew so thick, and fires in the woods were so common, that we did not apprehend much danger of discovery from that source anyway. I knew my wife would be watched pretty closely, and it would be impossible for her to bring me food, so we both foraged around at night, picking up what we could and returning to our nest before daylight. We knew also, that just now there would be a great hue and cry after us, and big rewards would be offered for our capture.
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We were only forty-five miles from Fredericksburg, and it was known where I came from, so we had to be continually on the alert to guard against surprises. Many long hours did Banks and I talk and plan about what we would do, and where our next move should be made. A fugitive slave had everything against him, the laws of the United States, big rewards offered for his capture, and no knowledge of the country he was to pass through. He had no compass to guide him in his long, weary journey for freedom, and was forced to shun every human face.
Where he might have met kindness and encouragement of a practical nature, he would fear and tremble to ask it. So often did hypocrisy clothe itself in the garments of benevolence, and self-interest be the governing motive, that he would find too late that his confidence had been treacherously betrayed. I mention these few facts so my readers will understand the difficulties of our situation and the many unknown perils we would have to face. I was very fortunate in having Banks for a companion, and we mutually cheered each other in those hours of gloom and despair.
I would say to him, "Now, Banks, you know I would rather be shot dead than meet the man that bought me, for you know how we both promised we would go freely with him, but when I thought of my birthright, I made up my mind to fool him and try and get away.
You know I was born free and was sold by those people, when before God and man they had no right to do so. I've made up my mind to be either a free man or a dead one. I will not go back to my chains again. If you like, I will tell you a little of my story. It is full of hard knocks and harsh usage, perhaps like your own, and many times have I felt like giving up the battle. He would whip his slaves at every opportunity and seemed to have an especial spite against me, so much so, that I made continual efforts to escape, being every time captured and terribly beaten.
The last time I ran away he caught me with his hounds, and I was torn badly by them.
The day after my capture he came and looked hard at me, and setting his teeth together, hissed out, 'I'm going to cure you of this fever for running away, if I have to kill you to do it. He had my feet tied also, and in that position I was suspended by my hands so my feet barely touched the ground. All the whippings I have had were tame in comparison with this one. The lash was laid on until my back was perfectly raw, and it was only when I fainted that my cruel master stopped. When I became conscious, he glared at me, and grasping a large cat that was by, he dragged it across my back while its claws stuck into the flesh like so many fish-hooks.
This is gospel truth, Ike, as true as I am a living man. But all this ill-treatment only aroused me the more and as soon as my strength came back I started off again. This time I managed to reach the city of Alexandria, over sixty miles distant.
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It was nightfall when, tired, worn and footsore, I entered the streets of the town. I was just faint with exhaustion and could hardly drag myself along. I had made up my mind to go to England in some ship and so asked a quiet, decent looking man whom I met, some questions about sailing vessels and if he knew of any that were short of hands.
He eyed me all over and then said, 'Well, yes, my man, I do; you have come to the right person for information. I am in the vessel business myself and buy ship stores for them. Come along my man. I know who you are; don't be alarmed. I'm a friend to such as you and will help all the slaves I can to escape.
I could hardly believe freedom was in my grasp as this man told me it was; it seemed too good to be true. He said he knew of a sailing vessel that needed extra help and he would get me a job on her; the captain was an Englishman and would be only too glad to help me. I followed my protector, silently pressing his hand with gratitude, and the tears stole down my cheeks, tears of joy that I would soon bid farewell to a land that had made life both a burden and a curse to me; a country that in one of its national songs calls itself 'the home of the brave and the land of the free,'—hollow mockery, when so many millions were groaning for this very freedom.
I now entered an office in the lower end of the town where my conductor said he had some business. The moment we got into a little room, where there were a lot of rough men sitting around, he said, 'Well, boys, I've brought you a runaway nigger I've captured.
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Lock him up while we look for his owner. This sudden change in my fortunes from the height of joy and hope to the very depths of despair was hard to bear, and I groaned all through that weary, miserable night, how long, great Lord, how long! I expected nothing short of being tortured to death, for I knew the revengeful spirit of my master, and he would gratify his evil passions, no matter at what cost. Morning came at last and they told me my boss had been telegraphed for and would soon be here. When he did come he said to the officers, 'It's no use; I cannot cure that nigger of running away.
I will have to sell him. Ayler took me with him, and then he bought you, and that is how we met.