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 them.
"Hattie? Who are those people?" she whispered, tugging at her sister's sleeve.
"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 right cheek.
"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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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