Twelve chimes rang out from the belfry of St. John’s Church in Richmond. A few houses down the street a middle-aged woman emerged from the darkness carrying a lantern and plate of food. Accompanied by the melodic ticking of a grandfather clock her hooped skirt swooshed across the steps as she ascended the mansion’s elegant staircase. One floor, two floors, three; she stopped in front of a bookcase near the attic stairs and tapped out a code on the wall with the toe of her shoe. Slowly a panel opened; a bony hand protruding from a tattered sleeve grabbed the plate.
“Thank you, Ma’am. I am famished.” A young Yankee soldier whispered as he tore into the chicken legs and stuffed spoonfuls of black-eyed peas and cornbread into his mouth. Within two minutes, the mountain of food was gone. He wiped his mouth with his ragged sleeve. “Mmm . . . This is the first real food I’ve had in months.”
“I am sorry you had to stay here all day without any food or water, but the Rebels appeared on my doorstep a few minutes after you arrived. They suspected me of helping you and the others escape from Libby prison. The scoundrels searched my house and questioned me for hours.”
“I heard them talking. I’d rather go without food and water than to lose my life or go back to prison. I’m grateful to you and your people for gettin’ me out of that place of torment. What happened to the other three prisoners?”
“The less you know the better for everyone . . .” Before she could say another word a large shadow danced across the wall. Connie gasped, whirled around, and faced the intruder.
“Oh, it’s you, Maggie.” She sighed, clutching her bosom. “My nerves are on edge.”
The young Negress set down a pail of water, and placed a shirt, pants, and shoes on the bookcase. “Miss Connie, here are all the items you requested. Jim is waiting in the kitchen for you.”
“Thank you, Maggie. Please tell him we will be down in ten or fifteen minutes then you can retire for the night.”
“Yes Ma’am.” Maggie replied taking the empty plate from her employer. She nodded to the man before vanishing into the dark hallway.
The soldier grabbed the water dipper and drank thirstily.
“I hope the clothes and shoes fit.” Connie said. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
Back in her bedroom, Connie stepped out of the hooped skirt and donned a calico dress and heavy boots. A blue, cotton bonnet finished her outfit. Sometimes she felt lonely. Unmarried, without a brother or sister, her only living blood relative was a crippled, elderly aunt who lived on the second floor.
An abolitionist, Connie freed and educated the family slaves after her parents’ death from a train accident fifteen years ago. Three had remained at the mansion while six had returned at the start of the war three years ago to help with the Union cause. She considered them family. Her few neighbor friends thought her eccentric but a patriotic Rebel.
* * * * *
Connie and the young soldier met Jim in the kitchen. The older man, once a slave in her father’s house, was someone she trusted with her life. He removed a brick from the fireplace that triggered a panel to open.
A dank, earthy smell filled their nostrils in the narrow passageway. The trio trudged on in silence during the forty-five minute trip that ended at a ladder leading to the outside.
“Wait here and don’t talk.” Jim whispered, turning off the lantern. He climbed the ladder, and slowly pushed open a small earth-covered wooden hatch. A full moon revealed two rebel soldiers talking close by. He waited five minutes and checked again. With no one in sight, he beckoned to his companions. Together they slid down the steep riverbank.
A young Negro named Moses and three bearded Yankees met them.
“I was afraid the Rebs would see you, Jim. Moses said in a hushed voice. Three patrols came by tonight. Let’s get everyone on the boat before they come back.”
Jim pointed to the dory the men uncovered and motioned to the young Yankee to get in.
“God bless and thank you all for your help.” He said quietly, and then jumped into the boat with his three companions and Moses.
“God bless you and the Union.” Connie whispered before hurrying with Jim back to the tunnel.
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