“It is accomplished through organized effort by these men—Black Abolitionists, as they are called—haters of slavery. They are banded together in a secret society for this one purpose and have what they call stations scattered all along at a certain distance apart—a night’s travel—from the Mississippi to the Canadian line, where the fugitives are hidden and fed. The runaways are passed from one station to the next under cover of darkness, and are seldom recaptured. A station keeper, I am told, is only permitted to know a few miles of the route, those he must cover—the system is perfect, and many are engaged in it who are never even suspected.”
“And this man, is he one?”
“Yes, a leader; he operates the most dangerous station of all. The escaping slaves come to him first.”
“And he passes them on to the next man—do you know who?”
“Only what little Pete told me; the second agent is supposed to be a preacher in Beardstown.”
She asked no further questions, and after a moment turned away, resting back against the edge of the cockpit with chin cupped in the hollow of her hand. The profile of her face was clearly defined by the starlight reflected by the river, and I found it hard to withdraw my eyes. A movement by the negro attracted my attention.
“There is a small creek about four miles above the Landing, Sam,” I said shortly. “Do you think you can find it?”
“On de Missouri side, sah? Ah reckon Ah cud.”
THE DAWN OF DEEPER INTEREST
It tested his skill as a boatman to locate the exact spot sought amid that gloom, yet he finally attained to it closely enough so I was able to get ashore, wading nearly thigh deep in water and mud, but only to learn that the boat, which I had provisioned earlier in the evening, had disappeared from its moorings. No trace of it could be found in the darkness, although I devoted several minutes to the search. To my mind this was positive evidence that Pete had returned, accompanied by the two frightened women, and that, finally despairing of my arrival, had departed with them up the river. In all probability we would overhaul the party before morning, certainly before they could attain the mouth of the Illinois. Their heavy rowboat would be compelled to creep along close in shore to escape the grasp of the current, while our engine gave us every advantage. I made my way back to the keel-boat with this information, and the laboring engine began to chug even while I was briefly explaining the situation to Rene. She listened almost wearily, asking but few questions, and both of us soon lapsed into silence. A little later she had pillowed her head on her arms and apparently had fallen asleep.