Excerpt of Harriet and Isabella by Patricia O'Brien
(Page 3 of 8)
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The weather was burning hot, but she didn't care. She loved
being with Hattie on any venture, and going down to the river was the most fun.
It seemed to her this time that the crowd of grown-ups around her were jostling
one another too much, and Harriet explained they were impatient for the
late-arriving mail boat. Just like me, she said with a smile. If I get the big
batch of student applications I'm hoping for, our new school can open and we can
all make some money. Isabella smiled back and held on tight to her sister's hand
as they pressed to the front of the crowd.
But it wasn't a mail boat steaming up the Ohio River to the
dock. It was a vessel with the name The Emigrant painted on the bow. Its deck
was jammed with people, most of them half-naked, the hot sun glistening off the
sweat of black skin. They seemed to sway in unison with the vessel as it
approached across the lapping waves. Isabella guessed there were a hundred of
"Hattie? Who are those people?" she whispered, tugging at her
"Slaves," Harriet said, pulling her little sister closer,
squeezing her hand.
The boat docked amidst shouts from the crowd on the wharf.
"About time!" yelled one. "We've got eight escaped ones for you!"
"Bella, let's go," Harriet said, sounding alarmed. "This isn't
the mail boat." But the crowd was pushing forward, and they couldn't retreat.
Isabella lifted a hand to keep her hat from being knocked off, still staring at
the people on the deck as the vessel docked.
They were close up now. There were men and women, and there were
children too. She saw a girl about her own age and impulsively waved. The girl
slowly raised an arm but kept it motionless, as if to shield her eyes from the
sun. Only then did Isabella see an iron cuff on her wrist. From it swung a chain
of iron links, one looped through another, like the daisy chain of paper
Isabella had made that very day at home for her mother. Her eyes followed the
links to a woman standing next to the child, to a band on her wrist. And from
there to a man, and from there to another child. They were all chained together.
"Hattie -- " Isabella turned to her sister, but she wasn't
there. A man's arm pushed her aside. A corridor had been improvised through the
crowd, and eight people with dark skin were walking single file to the boat,
their hands cuffed in front of them, each held to the others by the same heavy
chains. One had white hair; he looked a little like Father, except for his skin
color. His head hung heavy, and his arms shook under the weight of the iron.
"Where are they going?" Isabella yelled to the man on the boat
who had just tied up at the dock.
"To market, child," he said with a cheerful grin. "Know anyone
who needs a good colored? We grow 'em ripe in Kentucky."
A commotion broke out back in the crowd, and a man pushed
forward. "You can't take that one!" he shouted at the boat captain. "That big
buck there, he's mine. I own 'im! Took me a month to track him down!" He pointed
at a man with sturdy shoulders and a long scar cut ragged across his nose and
"You'll have to prove it on the other side," the captain said, a
careless thumb pointing toward the Kentucky shore. "I paid a bounty hunter for
him, fair and square."
The man asserting ownership was standing now next to Isabella.
His eyes were furious. "He's my property, damn it. I own him, not you. And I'll
prove it." He turned, pointing at the man with a scar. "Silas, you kneel!" he
yelled. "I'm your master, and you know it. Kneel!"
Isabella watched, transfixed, as the man with the scar stared
straight ahead. He seemed turned to stone.
"Kneel, damn it!"
The man with the scar didn't so much kneel as buckle at the
knees. The movement jerked the chain shackling him to the others, causing a
slightly built woman in front of him to stumble back and almost fall.
Copyright © 2008 by Patricia O'Brien.