Authors: Mary Downing Hahn
Promises to the Dead
Mary Downing Hahn
Table of Contents
Clarion Books • New York
a Houghton Mifflin Company imprint
215 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003
Text copyright © 2000 by Mary Downing Hahn
The text for this book was set in 12-point Goudy.
All rights reserved.
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book,
write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South,
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Printed in the U.S.A.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hahn, Mary Downing.
Promises to the dead / by Mary Downing Hahn.
Summary: Twelve-year-old Jesse leaves his home on Maryland's Eastern Shore to
help a young runaway slave find a safe haven in the early days of the Civil War.
[Slavery—Fiction. 2. Fugitive slaves—Fiction. 3. Afro-Americans—Fiction.
4. Orphans—Fiction. 5. United States—History—Civil War, 1861-1865—
Fiction. 6. Maryland—Fiction.] I. Title.
HAD 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To the memory of Corporal Thomas N. Sherwood, 1st Regiment Infantry, Company B, Maryland Volunteers, and Private Charles W. Sherwood, Purnell Legion Infantry, Company A, Maryland Volunteers
If my great-uncle Philemon hadn't gotten a sudden hankering for turtle soup, the story I'm about to tell would have come out different. Or maybe it wouldn't have happened at all. But then who's to speak with any certainty about what might or might not have been? Everyone knows fate has a way of finding us no matter how well hid we may think we are.
All I can say is my particular story started when my great-uncle decided a bowl of Delia's soup was just the thing for his rheumatism, which was fearsome bad in damp weather. Since the old man couldn't go hunting himself, not with his stiff knees and aching back, he sent me to the marsh instead. A little spring rain wouldn't hurt a boy my age, he said. Nor the wind either.
Delia raised her eyebrows at this and said, "Age got nothing to do with it. I never knew pneumonia to spare a body, young or old." But she didn't waste her breath arguing. Once my uncle got an idea in his head, nobody could shake it loose. Not even Delia, who had more sense than me and him put together.
Uncle Philemon gave her a vexed look and said nothing. Delia was the only slave he owned, and he treated her good most of the time, fearing she might run away if he didn't. He'd told her more than once he planned to free her when he died; it was already written in his will, item two, right after the part where he left me, his great-nephew, all he possessed. Which didn't amount to much as he had gambled just about everything away long before I came to live with him.
"Go on now, boy," Uncle Philemon told me, "and fetch me the biggest old turtle you can find."
I knew better than to put up a fuss. Armed with a long pointed pole to poke the turtle out of the mud and a basket to carry him home in, I headed for the marsh. If it had been later in the year, I would have had an easy time of it, but we'd had a long cold spell in February, worse than a normal Maryland winter, and the wily old rascals were still hibernating. I figured they'd burrowed clean through the earth to China by now. Most likely children on the other side of the world were catching turtles that by right ought to have been mine.
The wind blew across the Chesapeake Bay, straight through the tall grass, driving the cold rain before it. It pricked my face like icy needles and soaked right through my raggedy old jacket. I soon grew weary of prodding and poking the mud and finding nothing. "Dang you, Uncle Philemon," I hollered, "and dang your everlasting rheumatism, too!"
I was sorely tempted to go home, but I didn't dare, not when my uncle had his belly primed for terrapin soup. If I walked through the door with nothing for Delia to cook, the old boy would throw a fit loud enough to scare the devil himself. Might even give me a thrashing, especially if he'd been into the brandy.
Despite his cantankerous ways, I must say I was normally right fond of my uncle. He'd done his Christian duty by me, sure enough, for he'd taken me in after Mama and Daddy died. I wasn't but four years old at the time and the most useless child you ever did see, but he agreed to be my guardian and teach me to be a carpenter. All he'd taught me so far was hammering, which you can't call a skill. I guessed it was a start, though. After all, I was only twelve. I had plenty of years to learn sawing and measuring and such.
Mostly what I did for my uncle was milk the cow, help the hired hands with the planting and harvesting, and provide Delia with things to cook for supper. Deer, squirrels, rabbits, oysters, crabs, turtles—whatever the old man wanted to eat I brung home. Without me, he'd most likely have starved to death long ago.
Other than that, and a few lessons in reading, writing, and figuring, Uncle Philemon allowed me to do pretty much as I pleased, which was often nothing but playing in the creek or climbing trees or making mischief of one kind or another. As for thrashings, all I had to do was stay out of his way when he'd been drinking. You can't ask for a much better life than that.
So I kept on poking the mud in hope of scaring up a turtle. Before long, the rain turned to a downpour so heavy I could hardly see. Truth to tell, the wetter I got, the better a thrashing seemed, mainly because it would be given inside, in front of a roaring fire. Let Uncle Philemon warm my britches—and the rest of me as well. If he wanted a turtle, he'd just have to drag his sorry old self down here and find one.
I took a path that led out of the marsh and into the woods, hoping to find shelter under the trees. If I hadn't been fussing about my uncle, I might have wondered why the crows were making such a ruckus, but I was just too mad to pay them any mind. In fact, I didn't notice a thing out of the ordinary till someone grabbed me from behind, pressed a knife against my throat, and clamped a hand over my mouth.
"Don't move or I'll kill you," a woman hissed in my ear. "Don't make a sound either. Stay right where you are, as quiet as you can be."
The hand holding the knife was brown. Since I didn't know of any Negro, slave or free, who'd dare to rob a white boy, I figured she was a runaway and desperate enough to do anything. So I did what she said. Kept my mouth shut, didn't move a finger or a toe, scarcely even breathed.
A Negro boy about seven or eight years old stepped out from behind the woman, looking every bit as desperate as his mama sounded. In one hand he held a big stick. Little as he was, I had no doubt he'd use it on me, given half a chance.
Other than the stick, the first thing I noticed about him were his eyes, which were as blue as mine. His hair was light, too, but tight curled. His clothes were torn and stained with mud, but even so, they'd once been finer than anything I'd ever owned. As far as I could tell, I'd never seen the child before, which surprised me somewhat. There weren't many slaves in this part of the county, and I knew most every one of them.
"You better do as Mama says," the boy told me, just as bold as he could be. "She'd just as soon kill you as look at you."
"Perry, for the good Lord's sake, hush." The woman tightened her grip on me. I felt her belly press against my back, as big and hard as a watermelon. "We need your help, Jesse Sherman."
It startled me to hear her speak my name, but when I tried to get a look at her face, her knife kept me from turning my head.
"If you promise to be still, I'll take my hand off your mouth," she said. "But I'm keeping the knife where it is."
I nodded, signifying I'd do as she asked. Right away, she uncovered my mouth and grabbed my arm. Like she'd promised, the hand holding the knife stayed where it was, but she allowed me to see her face.
To my surprise, I found myself staring into the eyes of Delia's niece Lydia. I knew for a fact she belonged to the recently deceased Mr. Peregrine Baxter, who lived up the Tred Avon River from Uncle Philemon's place. Not an easy journey, especially if you was afraid to be seen on a public road. They must have gone through woods and swamps and marshes, all in the rain and the cold.
So it was no wonder Lydia looked a sight. Her hair, usually so neat and tidy, hung in her eyes, and her fine silk dress was a wreck, its ruffles torn and its skirt stained. To make matters worse, she appeared to be about as big with child as a woman can get.
Nor did she appear well. The hands holding me fast were hot, and her eyes glittered with fever. She seemed to be ailing of something besides the baby in her belly.
"What are you doing here, Lydia?" I asked. "Have you gone clear out of your mind?"
"Don't waste my time asking foolish questions," she said. "My baby's coming. I need you to fetch Miss Sally Harrison to help me." While she spoke, she kept that knife against my throat, pressing so tight I could feel its sharp edge bite into my skin.
"Lydia, you know full well Miss Sally ain't going to birth a runaway slave's baby," I said, truly believing the poor girl was off her head with swamp fever. "It's against the law to aid and abet fugitives such as yourself. Miss Sally don't want to go to jail no more than I do."
At this, Perry raised his stick as if he meant to whack me one. "You better do what my mama says."
Irked by the sassy way he spoke, I leaned close and done my best to scare the child. "I seen Colonel Abednego Botfield just a few days ago at Mr. Baxter's funeral," I said. "He was looking meaner and uglier than ever. You know he's the Widow Baxter's uncle, don't you? I reckon she's already sent him after you and your mama."
Lydia narrowed her eyes and tightened her grip on me. There wasn't a Negro on the entire Eastern Shore who didn't know and despise Colonel Abednego Botfield's name. He was the meanest and most determined slave catcher in Talbot County—maybe in the whole state of Maryland. Once he went after a runaway, he never turned back till he caught him. Sometimes he even captured free Negroes and sold them into slavery. To hear Delia talk, the man was a hound from hell.
Truth to tell, I didn't like the colonel no better than Delia did, for he was the very card sharp who'd won just about everything Uncle Philemon owned, including my inheritance. But the law was the law, and I figured I should remind this bratty boy of the trouble he was in.
"Don't mention that devil's name again." Lydia pressed her knife against me as if she meant to slit my throat then and there. "He's caused nothing but misery since the day he was born. It should have been him who died, not Peregrine."
The tears in Lydia's eyes puzzled me. It didn't make sense for a slave to weep over a white man's death. Especially when she was running away from that very man's widow.
"Peregrine meant to free Perry and me. He promised," she went on. "But last night I heard Mrs. Henrietta tell her uncle to take us to Slattery's slave jail in Baltimore and sell us south—"
Lydia broke off with a groan. She clenched her teeth and shut her eyes, but she didn't loosen her grip on me or the knife.
"Do you know what sort of place Slattery's is?" she asked when the pain had passed.
I nodded with my head down, ashamed to meet her eyes. Slattery's was the worst slave jail in all Baltimore City. It had a reputation of pure evil. Though Uncle Philemon sometimes threatened to send Delia there, he didn't mean it and she knew it. It was just something to say when she made him mad. He always ended up apologizing to her for suggesting such a thing. After a while, she usually forgave him.
Though I wasn't overly fond of the recently widowed Mrs. Baxter, I couldn't imagine her sending a slave to Slattery's any more than I could Uncle Philemon. Didn't I see the woman every Sunday in church, wearing her best finery and looking as godly as the other ladies?