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  • Follow the Drinking Gourd
  • Charles Johnson (bio)

Think I heard the angels say,Follow the drinkin’ gourd.Stars in the heaven gonna show you the way,Follow the drinkin’ gourd.

— Black American folk song

After escaping from slavery in Alabama, he went back willingly into the bleak, macabre world of slaves once again. Five years ago, in 1850, he’d fled the nightmare of bondage with his wife, Adele, traveling by night from Mobile to Kentucky. It had been a hellish journey marked by weeks of hiding, disguises, last-minute escapes, and name changes. But after reaching Paducah, Kentucky, he kept moving and established himself in southern Illinois as a versatile craftsman based on the skills he’d learned as a bondsman. His name was Christian Fowler and, as Thoreau had written five years earlier about living in Walden, Fowler had developed during his thirty-five years as many “skills as fingers on the hand.” He was a saddle-maker and carpenter, a barber and a cook. Of course, he was still a wanted man in Alabama, a fugitive with a two-hundred-dollar bounty on his head. There were padderolls and soulcatchers eager to collect that money if he showed himself anywhere near his old master’s place. But why in the world would he do that? He had slipped away from bondage — the whippings, the sound of the daylight horn calling him to work — and built a decent life for himself from scratch. It was funny to him sometimes how slave owners could never understand why black people ran away. Their doctors even concocted a disease to explain this behavior — drapetomania, a sickness that supposedly made slaves flee their shackles and chains. Others just saw runaways as criminals — as people who had stolen themselves from their masters. At any rate, he was safe from all that in Illinois, and now Adele had given him two fine sons. Just the same, he had to go back [End Page 60] to his borning ground, because never a night passed, as he and his family enjoyed the relative freedom of their new home, that he didn’t have survivor’s guilt and screamed himself awake when he saw in his dreams the faces of those family and friends he’d left behind when he cut dirt from the plantation of Captain William Boswell.

This would be his last trip. That was what he promised Adele. No more placing himself in danger after he guided to freedom her cousin Ida, a young woman around eighteen — perhaps two or three years younger — with chestnut-brown eyes, a mole beneath her ear like a grain of pepper, her hair arranged at the back in broad basket plaits, and her one-year-old baby, Sara. They’d been traveling light for weeks through back country that smelled mucilaginous and faintly sweet, through villages and tobacco fields, bringing only a little food, and Fowler carried his double-barreled shotgun, his bowie knife, and a canteen filled with Old Orchard to steady his nerves. As always, he followed that reliable beacon in the night — the Big Dipper stars that were shaped, if you looked at them carefully, like a wooden gourd pointing to the Pole Star. “I’ve always been lucky,” he’d told Adele when he left to rescue her cousin. “The North Star ain’t never let me down. And God takes care of me.”

But maybe not this time.

When they reached Mississippi, they’d covered a little more than half the distance to their destination, and he realized something was stalking them. Two men, soulcatchers, were a half mile away, taking their time so as not to startle their prey, giving the runaways a little breathing room to relax and let down their guard before taking them by surprise. And he knew these two bounty hunters. Oh, yes, he even knew them by name. They were brothers, Caleb and Joshua Weems. He could smell them on the wind the way a rabbit did a hound. Now and then he could see their campfires. And they were good, those two, cagey and ruthless. The best manhunters in Alabama, who knew how runaways thought — it...


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pp. 60-65
Launched on MUSE
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