Shortly before the Civil War exploded in the South, thirteen year-old Ben McKenna is fighting his own war against slavery. Determined that his father not sell his slave friend, Josiah, Ben plans an escape for Josiah and his parents into an unknown world of hostility, danger, and deception. Unless Ben can pull this off, his father will sell the crippled Josiah, punish Josiah’s parents, and possibly imprison his own son.
The quest for freedom begins with a collapsing underground tunnel that nearly buries them alive, and continues through a dangerous swamp that sucks Josiah beneath its dirty waters. Impenetrable forests, deceptive “rescuers” who imprison them for weeks, and even the near capture by Union soldiers are only a few of the events that happen to prevent them from finding the Ohio River and freedom.
For months, Ben and his friends endure the hardships of hiding in barns, attic rooms, cellars full of stinking fruit and vegetables, and even secret travel from one safe house to another in false wagon bottoms and coffins in a death coach. Free blacks, Quakers, and a strange young man offer their help to the runaways, sometimes with questionable results.
Throughout this journey, Ben has struggled with his feelings about betraying his family and their beliefs in the convention of slavery in order to do what he believes is right.
When he and the slaves reach the Ohio River and the man who will take them to freedom, Ben must choose between crossing the river with his friends, leaving behind his family and all he has ever known, or returning home to face the consequences of his actions.
In the days and weeks that followed, Ben and his friends fell into a monotonous kind of routine. They took turns using the chamber pot and washing in the big china basin, hidden behind a rough curtain hanging from the ceiling in the back of the room. Mister Andrews came in every morning before his wife brought up breakfast to empty the pot and bring up fresh water for the basin. After breakfast, Ben sat down with Josiah and continued teaching him to read. Sometimes Josiah would pick up a more advanced storybook, and Ben would read to him. Later, they would play a game, and occasionally Bess and Jesse would join them for a few games of checkers. Other times, Bess took one of the children’s books and tried to teach herself to read, while Jesse paced, his restlessness barely contained.
One day, Jesse stood over Ben as he and Josiah were playing Jackstraws. “Iffen you don’t ask them peoples when we gonna be outta here, I’m gonna do it.”
Ben didn’t look up from the game. “All right, Jesse. When Missus Andrews comes to bring supper, I’ll ask her. But don’t get mad at me if she doesn’t give me an answer.”
When the door opened at suppertime, it was Mister Andrews carrying the big tray. As he put it down carelessly on the rickety table, Ben put his hand on the man’s arm. “Mister Andrews, I need to know about when you think we’re going to get out of here. We’ve been here awhile now, and we’re anxious to move on to the river.”
The man glared at Ben. “How many times do I have to tell you, don’t ask me questions. You’ll move when arrangements are made, and not until then. Take your hand offen my arm, or I’ll break it.” His voice was a snarl.
Ben removed his hand, but said stubbornly, “Look, you don’t have to be so mean. We’re cooped up in this little room, and nobody tells us anything. We just want to get out of here and get on to finding the river.”
Mister Andrews took a step forward until he was almost nose-to-nose with Ben and smiled. Ben thought it was the most evil smile he’d ever seen. “I reckon as how you’d best quit’cherbellyachin’. You got food, bed to sleep in, and you best recollect you and them slaves ain’t no kind of royalty, so be glad for what you get, boy, or you’ll get nothing.”
The man turned away and came nose-to-chest with Jesse, who had come up behind him.
“You best not be troublin’ this here boy, white man, or I mess with you. You not gonna like that.”
Ben looked at Mister Andrews and saw his face pale. After all, Jesse loomed over the man by more than a foot. He put both hands on Jesse’s chest, pushed hard, and slipped past him. He hurried to the door and slammed it shut after him. It was only after Ben heard the linens being slammed on the shelves that the twisted knot in his stomach slowly began to ease.
Ben had been marking the days’ passing on the wall with his penknife, and on the twenty-eighth day, he heard someone taking the linens away from the door. Instead of the door opening, he heard Mister Andrews’s rough voice.
“Well, now, what you boys doin’ up here where you got no business bein’?”
Not long before, Ben had heard horses coming up to the house and men’s loud voices. Since the Andrews often had visitors, he had thought nothing of it. Now, however, he placed his cheek against the wall to listen to the voices outside.
Ben couldn’t hear all of the conversation, but at one point, he drew in a deep breath and pushed his ear closer to the wall.
“Andrews, we knowed you got …hid here ’bouts. There’s… handsome reward. A thousand dollars …more’n we…ever… We…split…three ways. …tonight, we take … boy and slaves. You try…stop us…you be sorry. Now…you in or…?”
The voice Ben heard turned his blood to ice. The rough voice of the ruffian Phineas Taylor was unmistakable. This was the man who had chased Ben and his grandmother. The man the Marshal had warned them about.
Pa sure must want them back real bad if he had offered a thousand dollar reward. Probably just so he can sell Josiah, and maybe even Bess and Jesse if he’s mad enough. I doubt he cares a thousand dollars’ worth about me.
Ben knew if Phineas got him and the slaves, he could kill them all without a second thought. He also knew that if the poster offered the reward for finding them and not specifically for returning them, Phineas could still legally get the money even if they were all dead. All he had to do was show proof of whom he had killed. There was no choice. They had to get away from the Andrewses now.