Washington D.C., November 16 th , 1869
As they huddled together in the small pen, Michaela looked the other way while Sully hastily changed into the oversized trousers, shirt and threadbare jacket the young Negro woman had brought him, both knowing modesty had to be overlooked given the urgency of their situation. In the meantime, she racked her brains for an idea of where to hide from the soldiers, police agents, and possibly dogs, before making it safely to the War Records Office at six. Shaking with impatience and fear, she took a glance at her pocket watch. More than nine hours left before their rendezvous with General Parker…
She could still hear the soldiers ransacking the shacks and roughing up the poor inhabitants in search of the fugitives, and she felt all the more grateful for their hosts' silent resistance in preserving their whereabouts. It would have been easy for any of them to denounce the whites in their midst… Michaela wondered if this didn't simply mean these people were under no illusion that they wouldn't be treated better whether they turned the fugitives in or not. Her heart constricted with compassion.
Anyway, it was obvious they couldn't stay hidden in the Murder Bay slums much longer. Sooner or later, one soldier might shoot down the dog that was guarding the pen, or perhaps cause harm to the brave young woman and her baby. Michaela and Sully exchanged looks, not daring to speak as more soldiers passed right by the thin wall of wooden planks. One of them seemed to linger for a while, plodding around in the mud. Sully thought he heard the guard sniffing and shot an alarmed glance at his fiancée : her perfume, however dulled by the cloying smell of the mud and the wet wool of her heavy army coat, was still discernible to him… so it was likely the man who was standing only a couple of feet away could smell it as well. If the man had two cents worth of intelligence, no doubt he would realize that such a refined fragrance could not possibly belong to the near-starving women living there!
Michaela understood and grimaced helplessly: nothing she could do about the problem now. She raised her eyes to the cold, cloudy sky and silently mouthed a prayer, asking for safety, hope, help, anything that could get both of them out of that mess. At that moment, she felt as if her faith in God was about the only thing she could turn to and trust.
Mercifully, the soldier moved on, and the sounds of the search party they could hear seemed to come from another part of the slums. Cautiously, Sully checked their immediate surroundings by the gaps between some planks, moving noiselessly in spite of his boots being caked with mud. His posture relaxed slightly, and Michaela knew that they were safe, if only for a few minutes. She breathed a sigh of relief.
"Sully," she whispered, "we need to find a safer place to hide. As long as the soldiers know we're hiding here, they won't leave until they find us. And they won't hesitate to arrest people for harboring and aiding fugitives."
"I know… we'd better get out right now while they're lookin' the other way…"
"Yes, but where can we go?"
At that moment, the young woman reappeared.
"Psst, pssst!… hey, Lady docta! Mista! I got a way to get ya outta here… C'mon."
They followed her, a bit unsure, through a maze of tarpaper shacks and wooden structures that were barely bigger than sheds. They ended up at the opposite end of the slums from where the soldiers were still forcefully searching the fragile hovels. There was a small, rather dilapidated wagon so heavily laden with laundry it was a miracle the wheels were still holding its weight. The fugitives cast puzzled glances at their Good Samaritan.
"Friend o' mine got herself a job doin' laundry and cleanin' rooms for people in da city," she explained, "one of 'em got a boardin' house. Took a likin' to Hattie. Said she could hide ya if'n you gots money…"
Michaela nodded nervously, hoping she had enough money to buy the boarding house owner's silence. She pulled out a couple of bills from the thin wad in her petticoat pocket and handed them to the young woman, who shook her head in refusal.
"Nah, keep it. We're even."
"Thank you – Thank ya, ma'am," both said.
At that moment another young woman, a girl barely older than Colleen it seemed, appeared, holding a homemade quilt that had seen better days. She was followed closely by a tall lanky man.
"Here...we figga if'n we wrap ya up in dis here cova' and hide ya under tha sheets, nobody'll 'spec nothin'," the girl offered, as the man already began making room amidst the laundry. Michaela and Sully cast another disbelieving glance at one another and nodded, wondering how this would even be possible, but trusting their accomplices. After the quilt was placed in the center, Sully hopped with his usual agility into the wagon and reached down to help Michaela climb in. He lay back, pulling her with him and wrapping her tightly in his arms, giving a nod to their helpers. The young people quickly and carefully tucked them in, and then arranged the piles strategically around, trying to keep it from being too heavy on the stowaways. The young man climbed up and took the reins, setting the wagon in motion.
"You all right?" Sully whispered, his lips next to her ear. Michaela tried to nod, but found she couldn't move, so she whispered back, "I think so..." Both were thinking if it weren't for the fact that they were together, their conveyance would feel like a small coffin. Fortunately, laying so close and sharing each other's warmth somehow lessened the claustrophobia.
The ride to the boarding house, though less than twenty minutes long, was not only terribly uncomfortable as they could barely breathe, but also because it made them excruciatingly aware of one another. Once the adrenalin rush from the whole stratagem began to dwindle away, the couple found themselves in quite a predicament. Sandwiched inside the piles of folded sheets, they were pressed intimately close, which for Michaela, was embarrassingly close. They had never, ever been this close before, touching from head to toe, and it only got worse as the jostling of the wagon on the uneven pavement accidentally made their bodies push and rub against each other, in a way that was suggestive of—
STOP! Both their minds scolded, as they each strove to snuff out the desire that had begun to smolder between them by concentrating on thoughts of the frightfully real and immediate risk of being discovered and arrested, maybe shot on the spot. Yet, as hard as they tried, they still couldn't help the heavy pounding of their hearts, thundering so loudly to their own ears, given their confined situation, that they both feared anybody might be able to hear it as well.
They had quite the heart-stopping close call at one moment. They only escaped the search thanks to the quick thinking of the driver, who managed to lead the policemen on a false track, or rather on the track they just left. Then the young man messed a little the arrangement of sheets to give the impression their wagon had already been searched, and that's how they passed by a couple of other patrols without being investigated.
The arrival, too, was rife with tension as several policemen were actively patrolling near the building where they were supposed to deliver their "load". This time it was the young woman who created the diversion and managed to steer the patrol away long enough for the couple on the run to slip inside the modest boarding house.
"Quick, get in there," urged the owner, a white, elderly woman who was probably in her mid-seventies. She looked like she had used to be plump but lost some, if not a lot of weight and her unkempt appearance hinted at little self-care and possibly a lack of boarders in the last few years. But she had a kind face, and Michaela felt that she, too, could be trusted. The handful of dollars the doctor would offer were obviously sorely needed and she would give them gladly for the few hours of protection this small harbor would provide.
They were shown to a downstairs room that looked out onto the backyard.
"Here. You should be able to hear soldiers coming down the hall and still have time to escape through the window," the owner explained.
"How can we ever repay you?" Michaela said, tears of gratitude and relief stinging her eyes as she took the cool, gnarled hands of the old woman in her own. Their hostess smiled thinly as if embarrassed, prompting Michaela to press the entire contents of her pocket into her hand.
"Will that be enough?" Michaela asked with uncertainty.
The old woman opened her eyes wide in shock, and gave half of the cash back to Michaela.
"That's too much… here, you keep some, you never know—you might need it later."
"Thank you," the couple said in unison, exchanging looks.
"Hush now—get in there," the woman said, shooing them inside and closing the door behind her.
There was an uncomfortable silence for a while as Michaela and Sully found themselves completely alone for the first time since the rescue the previous night. They could barely allow themselves to relax, instinctively straining their ears to catch any suspicious sound that might herald a patrol coming to search the boarding house. After a few minutes, they heard a shy knock on their door, and then the woman popped her head in, handing them a small pile of newspapers.
"Hattie said you need to hole up till tonight, and that she and her brother are gonna find a way to get you two to the place you gotta go… said you gotta be ready by five… Meanwhile… I thought you could use something to pass the time." She nodded toward the top paper. "That you?"
Both took a look at the headline. It read Fugitive Lovers, Dangerous Prisoner Escapes with Doctor's Assistance. Michaela blushed while Sully nodded somberly, murmuring, "You're gonna turn us in?"
"No. Hattie told me how you two've been helping her people in Murder Bay asking for nothing in return. If you were as dangerous as those newshounds pretend, I figure I'd already be dead by now, right? You don't strike me as the criminal type. And believe me, I've seen my share of them!"
With those words, she exited and relocked the door, and then they heard someone sweeping and mopping the floorboards. The mud! The footprints! Thank goodness they had clever accomplices!
The stranded couple didn't look at the newspapers though, as if afraid the sound of rustling paper would give their hiding place away. There was so much at stake, not just their freedom anymore, but their very lives. They knew that this time, if they were caught before finding the proof that Sully had been used as a scapegoat, he would be executed without delay. And Michaela herself could possibly face a death penalty, or life in prison. The prospect, which had seemed remote as long as they were busy trying to come up with a plan and keep out of sight of the soldiers, was now sinking in. Both were starting to feel the gripping fear of losing their soul mate in those circumstances, and the oppressing guilt of bringing the other into this mess weighed heavy on their hearts.