“Dis crazy, Miss Harriet,” the young girl gasped as they sprinted down the dimly lit lane. The older lady showed no sign of hearing the complaint. Instead, her attention was on the straggling runners who were falling ever further behind. “We's runnin' right for 'em,” the girl pleaded.
Harriet turned her attention momentarily to the girl. “Hush, Liza, we're doubling back on them. Just keep running -straight for the back of that Church building yonder.” Harriet fell back and urged on the slower runners, hoping that they would make it in time. She hadn't meant to cut it quite this close. The child was right, those dogs were dangerously near. As they neared the Church building, the sounds of singing and praise could be heard from within.
Harriet quickly led her group to the back of the building, where they pulled loose a few boards and crawled underneath. From the inside, Harriet wedged the boards back into place. Obviously she had used this hiding place before. On their bellies, they crawled under the building to a place near the center where a depression was carved out. It was large enough for their group to huddle in without being seen from the outside.
“They gone find us fo' sho' now,” grumbled Liza. “Them nigger dogs knows they work.”
“That's slave talk,” Harriet chided. “The man that owned you may have called you that, but you're a free negro now. If you don't start acting like one you'll be back in chains before we make it North.”
“We ain't makin' it nowhere when them dogs git up under here,” complained one of the older men. “They gone turn 'em loose on us and what don't get chewed off gone get whipped off later. There ain't no foolin them noses, they gone catch us.”
“There's no fooling those dogs, they're too good,” Harriet agreed. “But I ain't fooling the dogs. I'm fooling the hunters.” The sounds of singing and shouting suddenly died down, and the sounds of the dogs could be heard a short distance away. They were closing in on the Church quickly, the shouts of their handlers could already be heard in the distance. The sudden shuffling and stomping of feet on the floor above their heads suddenly drowned out the frightening sound of the slave hunters. The congregation was leaving the building, and the sounds of their laughter and shouting soon surrounded the building.
From the Church steps a gunshot rang out. “Nobody leaves!” a loud voice shouted. “We tracked some escaped slaves here and nobody leaves 'fore we find them.”
A calm voice replied “Those are mighty fine dogs, Sir. They led you right to the biggest gathering of slaves in the county. You may may have noticed that everyone here is a negro except you and me.”
“The preacher's right, Billy,” chimed in a low, deep drawl. “Them slaves give us the slip back up the road and them dogs just kept tracking nigger scent. Lord knows there's enough of it here, but none of these are the ones we're looking for.”
Another voice chimed in “It's Christmas eve, Billy. Let's git on back home, we already got a long ride ahead of us. There ain't no escaped slaves here. I can tell 'em by the look in their eye. They either look scared or proud, and none of these niggers has the look. I got my kids expecting me home tomorrow, escaped slaves or no escaped slaves.”
After a little more bickering, the gang loaded up their dogs on a wagon and headed back south on the road. The Pastor waited for them to get out of sight before calling the congregants back to the steps. “Brothers and Sisters,” he intoned solemnly, “somewhere out there in the cold, dark night there's people in need. They need our prayers tonight. We'll all go home to our family, maybe a fire and some food. They won't have anything but cold, fear, and hunger. Join me now as we pray for them.”
Liza listened quietly as the group prayed for them, seemingly unaware that they were in earshot. The voices seemed solemn -there were men and women, some even sounded like children. Liza wondered if the children were with their families. “I miss my Momma,” she whispered, not even realizing that she had spoken it.
“She'd be proud to know you are free,” whispered Harriet. “I know it must have hurt her to see you sold off South, being as young as you were.”
Liza's head drooped. “I remember that day like it was yesterday. They ripped me outta her arms and throwed me in the wagon. She was cryin' and I was a' bawlin' like a baby. I guess I was a baby. Ever since I felt like I ain't got nuthin in the world. I sho' do wish I could spend a Christmas with her, even if we didn't have nothin' to eat special.”
“I know it hurts, child, but all of it led to something good, you're free.”
Liza chuckled. “Free? I hope dis ain't what free is all about. We is hidin' here under a floor runnin' from dogs. We's cold and hungry. I don't feel free. I can't walk around like the ole' Massuh can. He's free to do what he want.”
Harriet shook her head. “Child, do you think that man is free? He beat you in a inch of your life for readin' the Bible. You know what else he done to you, and you so young. Don't you reckon he's got a price to pay for that? The lawd Jesus say that it would be better for him to have a rock tied round his neck and be throwed in the creek than to hurt you. That man won't never be free. The devil owns his soul and he don't even know it.”
Aware that the others were now listening, Harriet paused to let her point sink home. “Remember, baby child, tomorrow is Christmas. The lawd came down from heaven above to make us free. You think about that little baby layin' in an old barn full of animals. He was just like we is tonight -no home, his momma and daddy even had to run from ole King Herod.” From the darkness, Harriet could hear a few whisper “Amen.” As the prayers continued outside on the Church steps, Harriet took Liza by the hand. “Bein' free, child, is about what is in your heart. Jesus came and died to set you free. If you ain't free inside, you won't never be free outside.”
From the steps nearby, they heard the minister close the prayer. Through the silent, still night his final words rang out.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”