The River Runs Deep – Episode 04

Sailesh Thakrar © The main characters from the story Illustration by Sailesh Thakrar

When he got into town, Billy-Bob headed straight for Mathieson’s.

But instead of going inside, he made a beeline around the corner to the large, shining side windows.

It was still there!

He’d been worrying it had been sold.

The pretty blue bonnet with the pink flowers cost a lot, but there were plenty folks in Deep River rich enough to buy it.

Closing his hand around the coins in the pocket of his coveralls, Billy-Bob took a breath and started into the store.

“There’s something I need to ask about, Miss Adelaide.”

He pointed to the discreet notice: A small deposit secures any item.

“Grandpa told me it means if folks can’t afford to buy something straight off, if they give you some money, you’ll keep it until they can pay the rest.”

“Correct.” Adelaide smiled. “Most customers pay a little whenever they can.”

Fishing into his pocket, he placed a stack of coins on to the polished counter and gazed at her uncertainly.

“Mr Sinclair’s given me this for helping at Pipers Creek. Is it enough for you to keep the blue bonnet until I can pay for it?”

“I’ll set it aside,” Adelaide reassured him. “Is it for your mother?”

“For her birthday.” Billy-Bob nodded. “It’s ages away, so by then I’ll have enough money. I’m getting a job.”

“You’re surely not leaving school?”

“Pa wouldn’t let me,” he answered. “But I can work before school, and after. Whole days, too, whenever school’s out.”

“I’d be glad of help around the store,” Adelaide began. “Would you consider working here?”

It had been the hottest day of the year, and the North Star appeared to be shining especially bright in the clear night sky as Adelaide slipped noiselessly from the rear of the store.

Catching up the reins of her mare, she walked cautiously, pausing at the corner before emerging into the street.

Deep River was quiet and pretty much in darkness, save for a dim glow behind the barred windows of Sheriff Pearce’s office.

Beyond that, at the far end of town, a slab of light spilled out through the Silver Dollar saloon’s doors, together with music, voices, raucous laughter and an eruption of hooting whenever the dancing girls came on.

As soon as Adelaide was outside town, she rode to the Delderfield house, where Hal was waiting.

They’d left Deep River separately, as was their custom whenever they were engaged upon their work as conductors with the underground railroad.

The underground railroad was a secret network of men and women – black and white, free and former slaves.

They transported enslaved people northwards along “liberty lines” and across the border to freedom into Canada.

Hal had received a coded message from one of their fellow conductors, Edgar Watts.

Mr Watts had himself been enslaved, born and raised on a hemp plantation in Kentucky, like his parents and grandparents before him.

He’d escaped several years ago. However, despite being a fugitive who, if caught, would be returned to the slave-owner in Kentucky and severely punished, Mr Watts hadn’t gone to Canada.

He’d chosen to remain in America, helping others with their quest for freedom.

“There’s one male passenger,” Hal explained as he and Adelaide set off from the Delderfield house.

“Mr Watts suspects the farm hideout is being watched, so we’re to meet at the kirk stones.”

They spoke no more while they walked. The slightest sound could betray them.

The kirk stones lay some nine or 10 miles distant, deep into dense woodland, and Hal gave a soft night-bird call, alerting Mr Watts of their approach.

The tall, gaunt man stepped from the hideout.

“We’ve two extra passengers. Sisters,” he whispered. “But Zebulon’s been wounded. He wants us to go on without him.

“The women and I have fixed up a stretcher,” Mr Watts went on. “I’m not leaving a man behind.”

“Of course not,” Hal responded. “Between us, we’ll manage.”

Progress was slow and awkward.

At long last, the woodland thinned and they emerged on to a little-used dirt track. Delderfield was less than a mile away.

Although the going was easier now, it was far more dangerous.

Travelling in the open like this – even under cover of night – made the risk of their being seen and captured all the greater.

Only when they were within the walls of the once-grand mansion did Adelaide breathe easier.

To be continued…

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