Excerpt from “The Clouds of War”

In the following excerpt, Julia, sister of Will Crump, and now running the Ohio Zephyr steamship company, does her part for the Underground Railroad at the urging of her younger sister, Albinia. This is based upon an actual incident.

After everyone had retired, and it was nearing midnight, Julia took a walk down to the engine room. The fireman barely noticed her, as he stoked the fires of the boiler with coal. But another man recognized her, and snapped to attention.

“At ease, Mr. Penn. Do you know where I might find a crowbar? I’ve a mouse in my stateroom.”

“But surely the steward…”

“I wouldn’t bother him for such a trivial matter. I grew up on a farm, I’m quite capable of dealing with mice, given a suitable weapon.”

“Yes, Mrs. Johannsen. I believe Paddy keeps one over by the coal pile, for that purpose.”

Julia retrieved the crowbar, and soon pried open the barrel in her stateroom, after locking the door. She sighed, looking down. Just salt pork, after all, she thought.

Then the salt pork on top began to move, and a full grown man, medium height but powerfully built, stood up from the midst of the barrel, a piece of salt pork still entangled in his black curls. He looked rather comical.

Julia suppressed a laugh, then wondered if she should be afraid.

“Well, I almost decided you weren’t there! Let’s get you out, then.”

“My knees and my ears got pretty friendly in there, ma’am.”

“I imagine so,” she said, pouring him a glass of water. “Thirsty and hungry too, I expect. Sorry I can’t do better,” she said handing him a few biscuits. “We don’t have long. I have to re-hide you. I’m afraid you’ll be in the boiler room. It’s going to be hot. Shifts change in about fifteen minutes – you must be in place before the new man takes over. You’ll have to follow me down there, pretend to be my slave, in case someone sees you – but try not to be seen! Once we’re landed in Cincinnati, I’ll come and get you. You must pick up this barrel and carry it off the ship, to a green wagon at dockside. Once you’re in the wagon, the man who owns it will take over, and take you to the next stop. If you’re discovered in the boiler room, I’ve never seen you – you’re on your own. You must follow all my instructions exactly, if you’re to get away. Clear?”

The big man stretched– Julia moved back, frightened he might grab the crowbar and do her harm. Instead, he just said, “Yes ma’am. And I’m mighty grateful.”

A few minutes later, Julia left the room, and seeing no one, came back to lead the man down below. She purposely avoided the crew stairways, where someone was more likely to recognize her. The black man shuffled behind, playing the part of an obedient slave.

She saw an officer emerging from the salon ahead, and stopped, motioning the slave into a hallway. He responded quickly. Julia tensed, unconsciously holding her breath as the officer tipped his hat, and walked by, to the staircase up to the pilothouse. Julia quickly got the slave down to the boiler room. She checked ahead, and found the room briefly unattended – they must be using the privy, or gone for a smoke, she thought. Motioning to her charge, she showed him an area behind and above the third boiler where he could fit, barely, without being burned.

She returned to her stateroom. As promised, when they docked in Cincinnati, she was able to get him to the barrel. He picked it up easily, waved, and vanished down the gangplank, out of sight–into freedom.

From Across the Great Divide: Book 1 “The Clouds of War” (c) 2019 Michael L. Ross

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