Seventeen-year-old Preston Blake heard the moans before spotting the figure lying near the creek’s edge. Suppressing the urge to call to his father behind him, he instead, waved his hands wildly to catch the older man’s attention. Finally, his father nodded, and lifted the lantern he held towards the direction where his son had pointed. The eerie light illuminated their path toward a lone figure hidden by the shadows.
“It’s the slave!” Preston exclaimed, but his father clamped a strong hand over his mouth.
“Shhh," he hissed, releasing his hold. "Hurry. We don’t have much time.”
Preston scrambled forward. He’d saved many slaves this way with his father. Since the parsonage bordered Colonel Sutherland’s wealthy plantation, the hounds’ cries were the first warnings of an escaped slave. He and his father would round up their carriage, medical bag, and a week’s food supply, and then they’d search for the runaway. Within five years, his father and he had rescued, and transported, six of the Colonel’s slaves to safe houses. Grimacing, Preston remembered the other three runaways that the Colonel had reached first. Two had been hung immediately, but rifle fire blew the third slave’s head clean off.
“The Colonel’s suspicious of us,” Preston’s father confided. “May God be with us.”
“And him,” Preston added, nodding towards the slave.
“Oh, my sweet Jesus,” his father winced, running ahead. “Not him, Preston! Her! It’s Dominica!”
Preston’s feet, numb with coldness at his father’s words, refused to move. Falling forward, his ankle snapped, and instant pain radiated along his shin to his thigh. Hobbling upward, he shuffled toward his father who cradled the young woman.
“Oh, no, no,” his father cried, holding her tight. “Stay with us, Dominica. We can help you.”
Kneeling beside his father, Preston lifted Dominica’s hand. It felt tiny and fragile in his large palm, and he gazed down at it, stifling a gasp. Only a year ago, it had been raised in worship, and now, it lay bruised and bloodied in his.
“My baby,” she moaned, twisting upward. Grasping the reverend’s shirtsleeve, she begged, “Save my baby!”
“I want to save both of you,” Preston’s father exclaimed, eyeing their horse-drawn carriage nearby. "You must be in labor, Dominica."
But Dominica’s gaze turned toward Preston, and she calmed. “You'll save my baby,” she smiled wistfully. Gripping Preston’s hand, her beautiful dark eyes, now seized with immeasurable agony, captured his. “Freedom,” she whispered, her breathing labored and shallow. “Name my baby…Freedom.” She squeezed his hand again, convulsed once, and then sighed.
Preston lowered his head. He'd witnessed enough death in his lifetime to know that Dominica was gone.
“Oh, Jesus, no,” his father pleaded, splaying his fingers over Dominica’s protruding stomach. “Oh, God, please!”
And then, chaos.
“Hurry, Preston,” his father urged. “My medical bag! Hurry!”
Preston grabbed the bag, opening the pouch, and exposing its contents. “Papa, she’s dead—is the baby--?”
“Alive,” his father choked out, grasping a scalpel. “The baby is alive!”
“What are you going to do?”
“Preston, get out of here! Go back to the carriage and hurry, bring it around as quietly, but quickly as you can!” Watching his son’s stupefied expression, he slapped him. “Go!” he hissed, and Preston went, running fast, despite the agony radiating from his broken ankle.
Nearing the carriage, he calmed the horses, smoothing their slick hides with his hand, and then he gently tugged the reigns—guiding them toward his father and Dominica.
Dominica, his mind cried, Dominica was dead!
Pulling the carriage alongside his father, he stifled his fear. “Papa?” he whispered into the night. “Papa? What are you doing?”
The lantern had been snuffed out, but Preston could still see his father hunched over Dominica. Suddenly, he sprung back from her and groaned.
Preston dropped the reigns. “Papa…” he called softly.
Parson Blake lifted his blood-soaked arms towards heaven, and inside his cupped hands lay the lifeless body of Dominica’s baby.
Silence ensued. Preston didn’t hear the water’s rush, or the crickets’ song, or the braying bloodhounds drawing nearer and nearer, only the anguished pleas of his father’s voice, sobbing, “Why, Jesus? Why?”
And then the weary old man lowered his arms, and the baby cried.