Mary looked up and listened. She could hear the rhythmic beats of the drum loud and clear, even though it came from the other side of the plantation. The same beat played twice.
She pursed her dry lips into an unnoticeable smile as she bent over to pick another puff of cotton. Twice meant that they would meet by the north gate. Now all that was left was the time.
"When is my time, Oh Lord? When is my time to return to you?" she sang out, projecting her sparrow-like voice across the cotton fields.
The drum's reply came a few minutes after. Twelve beats. She drew in a slow breath. Midnight. They would meet at the north gate tonight at midnight. Tonight at midnight, they would escape. Or be whipped for trying.
Mary wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead as she stood up and stepped over into the next row of cotton plants. She plucked the white puff from its stem and dropped it into her almost full sack.
"Pick up the pace, girl!" a nearby overseer bellowed at her.
She clenched her teeth. If only there was a hoe nearby, it would be slamming into the back of his head right about now, She thought to herself. The thought brought a harder to conceal smile to her face. The overseer noticed.
"What's so funny?" he demanded, stepping in front of her.
She looked him in the eye, something the other female slaves would never have the courage to do, and smiled. "I'm simply happy that I am able to aid a man like Master Kenneth in his business." she said in a sickeningly sweet voice.
The man looked her up and down. He just stood there for a few seconds, unsure what to do. The dolt, Mary thought to herself.
"Now, if it's no trouble to you, I must return to my work." she drawled politely, wondering if he really was stupid enough not to notice her sarcasm.
The man shrugged and stepped away. Mary let out the breath she was holding. She couldn't afford to have any attention drawn to her. Not on a day like today. As much as she wanted to tell him off, call him an oaf, and criticize him for his lack of knowledge about any work she and her fellow slaves did every day like she had during her first few weeks at the plantation, but not today. It was too important.
When Mary had arrived at the cotton plantation, she was a thief, sent from London to serve time here in South Carolina. She had been sixteen at the time. She expected to to whipped, mistreated, and worse. But in two years, she had found something she never expected. She found a family among the slaves.
She definitely stood out among the rest of them. Most of the other slaves were African or Native American. Mary was impossible to miss with her pale blonde hair and even paler skin. But she was treated as one of them. They told her stories of Africa and taught her songs that comforted her.
The songs weren't just for comfort. They were a code. They couldn't speak openly about plans of escape. So they used complex drum beats and Gullah songs to plan without being detected. All of it would soon pay off.
"Need another bag?" a voice from behind her asked.
She turned her neck to look. Jon stood behind her, a new sack in his hand. She stood up and smiled. She held out the bag to him and he handed her the other one that was filled with white cotton.
"Thank you." she told him.
Before turning to return to his own work, he gave her a quick wink. He must have heard the message, too.
Jon was from the Ivory Coast in Africa. He had been taken from his family when he was only thirteen and sold to the Master of this plantation, Josiah Kenneth. He was one of only fifty to survive the cramped, treacherous, unforgiving ship ride to the Americas. He was one of the first people Mary became close with. Jon was one year older than her, but he acted like a child. He always wore a smile and always had a joke to tell. He kept her going during those nights she would scream out in pain from the muscle pains she wasn't used to. He had gotten her through so much, and was probably one of the only reasons she had been allowed to participate in the escape.
Mary was the only girl going. The group was made up of her, Jon,and a three other men. They didn't want to allow too many people to come with them, because there was more chance of getting caught. Kenneth wasn't famous for keeping many guards, but anything they didn't have to risk, they didn't want to. At first the other men had no intention of allowing Mary to join them, but Jon had reminded them of her background as a thief, and that she could take good care of herself and help them fight their way out of a tough situation. Although they started out skeptical, they agreed to take her in the end.
She said a silent prayer as she knelt back down to keep picking. She would need all the help she could get if she wanted to get away from this despicable place.
She wanted better things. She didn't think like other girls here or in England. All they did was learn to cook and clean and be good wives and mothers. Mary had no intentions of being a wife and she certainly didn't want to have a child to worry about. She had always been very smart. When she was young, she lived with her uncle who was a school teacher. Before she ran away, she would listen in on his lessons. She taught herself to read listening to him and used his books to learn to write. By age seven she could read and write long sentences. She sharpened her mind through this. Maybe that was why she was such a good thief.
But reading and writing wasn't the extent of her knowledge. Growing up on the streets, she had to be able to defend herself. She learned to fight from other thieves. By the time she reached her fourteenth year, she was known all over London as a ruthless she-devil. Some people didn't even believe she was a girl. She didn't fight by any rule or structure. She did what she had to do to defend herself. "Like a rabid she-wolf," they called her.
She knew her reputation was somewhat known in America too. Some of the guards sometimes gave her strange looks. She also knew that America was at war. The British had just taken over Charles Town in efforts to stomp the rebel forces in the south. It seemed to be over for the Patriots in South Carolina. Kenneth, who was an extreme Loyalist, was probably ecstatic. He had several connections in the British army. He was always having men in those stupid red soldier's uniforms over. They were always arrogant and laughed at her and the other slaves. Even though she was born in England, she wanted to get them out as much the Patriots did. And she had ideas on how to do it.
Her plan after they escaped was to go see General George Washington and if she was lucky, join his army. She knew he had been traveling, recruiting people for the Continental Army. He was obviously desperate, accepting lowly farmers and other peasants to work for the military. Sometimes even slaves. Maybe he was desperate enough to let a girl thief join.
Mary picked cotton for the next few hours under the scorching June sun. By the time the evening bell rang, she felt like a bird that had been flying for hours and needed to rest, or else it would crash. She just hoped she wouldn't crash tonight.
Mary choked back a scream as a dark, rough hand clamped over her mouth, waking her from a restless sleep. Her eyelids flew open to see Jon's dark face hovering over hers. He flashed a grin in the dark and lifted his hand off her face. She let out the sharp breath she had been holding and sat up in her cot. She rubbed her eyes and lifted her thin blanket off her body and dangled her feet over the side of the cot so they touched the dirt floor of her small hut.
The slaves on the plantation lived in a big village of small wooden huts. The one Mary slept in belonged to a slave who collapsed one day and never got back up. It would have felt eerie sleeping there if Mary didn't come to bed too exhausted to even care. She was lucky, though. Most of the huts were very small. No matter what, they were what you got. Entire families had to cram into these little hovels. Better a haunted space than no space at all.
Mary reached under her cot and pulled out her dirt-covered boots. They were made of a thick material that was supposed to simulate leather, but she knew it was just some cheap animal hide. Planters never spent more money on their laborers than they had to. Especially in times like these.
She had fallen asleep in dark clothes that night. Instead of heavy skirts or dresses she wore in the fields, she sported a pair of dirt-brown trousers Jon had outgrown. With her thin build, they were still baggy on her, but she could still move around just fine.
After she tied up her boots, she reached under her cot again and pulled out the sack of bread she had been saving for awhile. It hadn't been easy. She could only take small pieces at a time. The guards watched them like hawks circling prey. But Mary managed it. Then again, she had once made her living off of taking things unnoticed.
Finally she stood up, ready to sneak their way to the north wall. Jon shook his head. Mary raised her eyebrow. What was missing? He held up a black cap. She must have looked confused, because he chuckled and pointed to his head. She opened her mouth to ask him what he--
Ah. Her sun-bleached hair would be more than a little noticeable even in the dark. She took the cap from him and put it on her head, pulling it over her ears. She tucked in the stray strands of blonde and looked back up to him. She couldn't see very well in the dark but, but she heard him snicker.
"What now?" She hissed, putting her hands on her hips.
"Well," Jon whispered, putting his hands on his own hips to mock her. "You look like a boy!"
Mary opened her mouth to say something, but she swallowed the words. All she gave him was an unamused look. Jon smiled again.
"But don't worry! You'd make a handsome one!" He added.
She couldn't help but laugh at that. Jon spoke English very well, but he still had a slight accent that made words like 'handsome' sound more like 'handsoom.' That only made his remarks more amusing.
When she thought of that, another realization hit her. What would happen to Jon if they managed this? Would he go with the other men, who probably planned on heading west, or would he go on his own? Mary knew where she was headed. North, to find the Continental Army's headquarters. There was no way he would want to go with her. No matter what he chose, she knew she would miss him. He was the brother she never knew she needed.
"Are you coming?" He asked, at the low little hole in the wall that was meant to be her door.
She nodded. She waited for him to shimmy out, and then quickly followed. The night was full of sounds. Tree frogs squealed from the brush. Cicadas chirped from the tall grass. Sometimes she even heard coyotes wailing. When she had first arrived, the noises unnerved her. They were strange and alien. But as the months passed, they had become as relaxing as a mother's lullaby.
The pair stayed to the shadows of the huts. They darted from cover to cover and crouched behind anything they came upon as they headed to the village's edge. Adrenaline pumped through her entire being. She was ready to duck, run, or fight at any moment. She sighed in relief. She had feared she had lost all these skills over the two years she's spent in servitude. It was as the lawyers accusing her had said: "Once a thief, always a thief."
They stopped when they reached the wood pole that marked the village's edge. If they were unlucky, they would all be tied to that pole, one by one, and given the amount of lashes Kenneth believed they deserved. If he even let them live.
She fought back memories of her first trip to that darned thing. Myra, one of the younger girls had become sick. Mary "borrowed" some medication from Kenneth's private store and one of the slaves sold her out. Myra got better, but Mary got twenty lashes. Ten for stealing and ten for not admitting her guilt when accused. It had been worth it, though. Myra was a good girl and no doubt would have gotten far worse without the medicine. She knew what would have happened to her if that happened. She would have joined her grandmother, who met the same fate she was headed for. Kenneth had no tolerance for slaves who couldn't work.
A guard was leaned against the pole. He had a small lantern next to him, so she could barely make out his features. He was a big man, more fat than muscle. He had a stringy grey beard and a receding hairline. His eyes were closed, and his chest rose and fell slowly. He had an empty wine bottle in his hand. Just to make sure he was asleep, Mary picked up a rock and hurled it at the bushes the grew close to him, but far enough from them for Jon and Mary to get a head start if he stirred. He just sat there, a dead weight. She couldn't suppress a smile. She glanced at Jon.
"Moron." she mouthed. Jon snickered.
She put a finger to her lips. She looked back over at the man and took a slow, light step forward, out of the shadows and into the dim lantern light. She swallowed as he snorted, rolling over into the dirt. The image of a pig wallowing in the mud came to mind. She rolled her eyes and crept past him, taking light steps and avoiding any twigs. She hoped Jon would do the same.
When they made it far enough away, they stopped and looked around. From here they could see Kenneth's mansion. It was a large white building with a black shingled roof and white pillars at the doorway. To anyone else, it would have been a nice structure. Some people might even envy him. But to her, it was a symbol of oppression and injustice. Tonight, they would escape it all. Or die trying.
They kept walking until there were no more trees to cover them. There was a good-sized open area with a work shed in the middle. Mary took a deep breath.
"Come on," she whispered, running out into the clearing. "We can sprint across and--"
She was interrupted by a sickening 'click' coming from behind them. She didn't move. Neither did Jon. She moved only her eyes to look behind her. Everything inside of her died. There was a man, standing in a patch of grass behind them, a pistol in his hand pointed straight at her.
"Don't move." his voice came out in a low purr, like an old tomcat. "Turn around."
She slowly rotated her body to face him. She could see him better now. He was tall and muscular, with broad shoulders and chiseled features. He wore a red coat with white trousers. The uniform of the British army. He looked to be in his forties, with dark hair and stubble dotting his chin.
She swallowed. "You're a soldier." she said, trying to sound unafraid.
The man smirked. "Smart girl.’Few of us are stayin' with old Josiah. Been a gracious host, he has." he said with a thick accent. "An' what kind of guest would I be if I were to let one of his little pack mules run off?"
"This doesn't concern you." she said, her voice firm.
The man laughed. "Well, you've got a bit of an attitude, don't you?" he chuckled. "I think we might need to change that." he said as he raised his pistol.
Mary braced herself for the shot. But it never came. In the blink of an eye, Jon rushed into the man. He grunted and the gun fell from his hand and he landed on the ground, wrestling with Jon.
They rolled in the dirt for a moment, but the man managed to free his arm and grab a gleaming knife from his belt. He raised it high, ready to plunge it into Jon's chest.
"Jon!" she screamed.
In a quick movement, she fell to her knees and slid across the grass to grab the gun. Without thinking, she pointed it blindly and fired.
Thunder exploded from the barrel. The force stung Mary's arms. For a moment there was dead silence. The man collapsed on top op Jon, his entire body limp. She dropped the pistol. Her heartbeat sped up like a running animal. Had she just...?
Jon groaned and started to push the man off of him. Snapping back to reality, she rushed to him and shoved the man aside. Jon coughed. Mary gasped. He had blood on his shirt.
Her hand flew over her mouth. "Did I--!?"
Jon shook his head as he sat up. He touched the splash of red on his shirt. He looked at the blood on his finger. "Not mine." he breathed.
She immediately looked over at the soldier. His eyes were rolled back in his head and a pool of blood was starting to form around him. He was pale as the cotton. Fingers shaking, she gingerly touched his limp wrist.
Nothing. No small pulse caused by pumping blood. She could feel the warmth seeping from him. A few seconds passed, and he went cold. It was no longer the arrogant man who stood before them just moments ago. It was just an empty husk. It was nothing.
Jon crawled over to him and flipped him over. Sure enough, there was a bloody hole in the back of his head. Mary had fired with deadly accuracy. It had probably killed him instantly.
She looked up at Jon. "We have to go." she said, rising quickly to her feet.
"But, Mary--!" he began.
"Hey! You two!" came a voice from behind the tool shed.
"Go!" Mary yelled.
They started running. "We can't go to the north wall!" she gasped, her lungs burning as they ran. "We'll give the others away!" She gasped as she caught a glimpse of a guard. She grabbed Jon by the arm and yanked him down into the bushes.
They both stayed silent. The man was about six or seven yards away. He must have heard the rustling noise they made, because he straightened up and looked around. Mary's stomach knotted as he started to walk over to them. He carried a long rifle in his hand. He wasn't wearing a red coat. He was just one of Kenneth's bums. But that didn't make him any less dangerous.
He was about to kneel down and see them when a loud trumpet sounded. The man looked up, startled. He hesitated for a moment, looking back at the bushes, but in the end ran towards the mansion. Mary didn't breathe until she couldn't see him anymore. Then she let it all out with an exasperated sigh.
"They must have found the body." she said, standing up. "We can't risk going all the way to the north wall. There'll be men everywhere in five minutes, tops. We have to go for the main gate."
Jon gave her a disbelieving look. "Are you crazy?!" he hissed.
She looked back at him. "You don't have to do this. Go back. It's alright." she assured him.
He shook his head. "And you're even crazier to think I would consider that. Where you go, I will follow." he said, firmly. "I just might not like it."
Mary smiled. She had just taken a man's life and he was still willing to follow her into battle. But this was no time to be sentimental.
"If we move quickly, we might get there before too many guards flood the place." she told him as they started moving in the direction of the main gate.
"It's best we watch for those red coats, too." Jon added. "It was one of them you..." his voice trailed off.”You saved my life, you know." he said as they picked up their pace.
She hadn't really thought about that. What had come over her? She just saw the soldier was going to hurt Jon. She wouldn't let that happen. She couldn't. Jon was family. They might not have been kin, but that's how she felt. She decided that there was no one she wouldn't kill to protect him. No one.
They reached the wide dirt road that led to the front. They could see where the stone of the wall met the tall cast-iron gate. There were empty carriages sporting British flags on the sides. They could hear voices and make out figures in the dark. They squatted behind one of the carriages and moved silently along the shadows.
Mary couldn't believe it. Freedom was so close now she could taste it. Soon they would be running through the dense pine woods she had seen two years ago when they brought her here. She had been a terrified sixteen-year-old then. Now eighteen, she felt powerful and self-assured. They could do this.
When they reached the edge of the line of carriages, Mary was shocked to see no guards at the gate. She could still hear a few, but they had to be more than thirty yards away. If they stayed in the shadows, they would be able to slip out easily.
They stayed there for a minute or two, but after that, Mary's anticipation got the best of her. "Now!" she hissed.
Taking long strides, they darted for the gate. Mary couldn't help but smile. Here they were, after all this planning. In a matter of seconds, they would be free. No more unjustified trips to the whipping pole. No more watching sick children and adults slowly wear away because their master refused to treat them. No more swearing or jeers from the overseers. She wanted to scream with joy.
They reached the gate, grabbed a bent piece of iron that made up the curly design of the gate, and began to climb. They ferociously grabbed for hand and footholds. Finally she swung her leg over the top, careful not to cut herself of the pointed top of the gate, and dropped down. The landing stung her feet, but she didn't hurt herself. She heard a thud when Jon hit the ground next to her. She looked up, ready to run like she never has before and--
Found herself facing a man wearing a bright red coat, a powdered wig, and a leather scabbard. He was holding a rifle in his right hand sported an expression that dripped with arrogance.
She flinched and her jaw dropped. No. This wasn't how it would end. Not like this. Not when she was this close.
"Mary Black, I presume?" he asked with a sophisticated accent.
Mary swallowed and stayed silent.
He chuckled as if she had just said something amusing. "Where are my manners?" he asked no one. "I am General Cornwallis, of His Majesty's army."
Her jaw fell again. He was Cornwallis. The leader of the British army in the south! This man was a ruthless strategist, bent on destroying any and all efforts made by the Patriots to win their independence from Britain. What was he doing here of all places? And why did he know her name?
"Why do you know my name?" she demanded.
He chuckled again. "I know a great deal about you, dear girl." he said in an almost painfully condescending tone. "You were born in a London prison to a certain Elizabeth Black, a convicted spy. You were taken to live with your uncle, John Black. " he began. "At the age of eight years, you ran away and made your name as a phantom thief who, even though you were still a young girl, fought off anyone who tried to apprehend you with such ferocity you earned the title 'The She-Wolf.'"
Jon gave her a quizzical look. He knew everything about her shady past, but she had never told him about her little nickname. She hadn't heard it since before her trial in London. It used to bring her pride. Sometimes she would even cut the walls of the places she robbed with a small knife to look like claw marks. But now it was a piece of her past she wished she could forget.
"And what, pray tell," she said slowly. "is the reason you know all this?"
Cornwallis smiled. "Well, you are known all over England. You do have a story like no other. And I always do my research on those I plan on recruiting." He answered. "I even sent a man to retrieve you, but judging by the gunshots, I'd say you found him first."
Mary gave him a confused look. "It wasn't like that! I--"
He held up his hand to stop her. "When I heard you were in the area, I had to pay a little visit." he told her. "The British army could use people like you to aid in our victory." he added with a smug grin.
She slowly looked him up and down. The British had just take Charles Town and they felt the need to use the unnecessary resources needed to track down a convicted felon? Was this some rouse just to get her in the midst of a bunch of soldiers so she could be executed? Or were they really trying to recruit her? Either way, Cornwallis was trying to sell her something she had not intention of buying. Not after her experiences with the Brits.
"They way I see it," she began. "You must be fairly close to defeat if you're desperate enough to invite someone such as myself to join the famous Redcoats."
The General shook his head. "You don't realize it, girl. You're a legend." he said, taking a step forward which Mary reacted to by taking a step back. "Your name carries an aura of fear."
"So you seek to scare the rebels into submission." she said. "Sounds desperate to me."
Cornwallis sighed, ignoring her comment. "I am prepared to offer you freedom in exchange for service in the army."
His words hit her like a lash of a whip. Freedom? Real, legitimate freedom? But at what cost? Although she hated to admit it, she agreed with the colonists. The king was no longer interested in the colonists themselves, but the profit he received from them. Was she willing to fight and maybe even kill someone who shared her views? Would she hurt innocent people? Fortunately, she already knew the answer.
"You are asking me to fire upon those who have never hurt me in any way?" she demanded. "You want me to attack them, who share my belief in freedom, when it was you and your pompous king who put me here in the first place?"
The General looked taken aback. Before he could say anything, she kept going.
"The colonies were supposed to be a place for freedom and equality! An escape from your corrupt monarch!" she yelled. "Now you've just turned it into another thing to make money off of and turned the people into your own slaves!"
The General's nostrils flared in anger. "You watch your--"
"No." she interrupted. "I mean what I say. And I will never join your army! Not money, not freedom, not anything would even make me consider the idea!" she shouted.
Jon looked shocked. She had almost forgotten he was there, standing next to her. She took him by the wrist, ready to run if they had to.
Cornwallis stayed silent. "Well, my dear she-wolf," he finally said. "You have just made yourself an enemy of the British army."
Mary stiffened. Had she said too much? What would happen to them now? Would he just shoot them now? Would he drag them back to be whipped and then hanged? Why had she let herself get carried away like that?!
"But," he continued. "Like a she-wolf, you are far better to hunt." He stepped aside. "So run. I give you three weeks to repent for your words. After that, we will hunt you down and you will die."
Neither of them moved. Was he really this thick? Would he really let them go? Or was there a pack of British regulars waiting for them in the woods?
They didn't want to waste time thinking about it. In one swift movement, they were off. And they didn't stop. Not because they felt they had to, but because they could. They had done it. They were free.