Second book in Georgia Ann Mullen’s Canal Tales Series, finds Tess with her brother, Cooper, and Beany following the Erie Canal to Buffalo. Beany is snatched by a fearsome woman named Wixumlee who taunts Tess and entangles her in the bold slave rescues of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.
A fraidy-cat gets her nerve back
Tess struggles and fails as a reluctant conductor on the Underground Railroad.
She ranks at the bottom of Wixumlee’s gang of abolitionists in terms of both skill and acceptance. The loyal Larkin, a pistol-packing gypsy named Mariana, and the heavily tattooed Quin offer her more insults than companionship. Only young Talbot and his one-eyed mama Savannah are sympathetic to Tess’ many mistakes.
Tess’ anxiety swells when no one but her believes the puzzling Nicky Pappo is a slave catcher.
Turned cowardly by bloodshed on the towpath Tess toils against Wixumlee’s dubious influence over Beany to win back her friend and regain her own lost courage.
Trouble on the Rochester road
Excerpted from Wixumlee Is My Salvation
We’re on the road early the next morning, and now the silence is killing me. We’re supposed to be strangers, but three days of dead quiet, of dull driving on rutted roads—of constant rock and bump—is making me cranky.
Who’ll hear if we exchange a few pleasantries? If I ask a few questions about home? I grudgingly admit I’m eager for news of Seneca Falls, but Lucy turns a thin shoulder to me. Doesn’t even talk to her maid. Playing the role of what’s proper.
I’m getting pretty steamed, dreaming up nasty insults to sling after we reach the safety of the Black Pole, and don’t notice the tree limbs piled in the road until the horse shies.
“Lordy! Do you intend to drive us right through that?” Lucy shrieks.
The words barely leave her mouth before two young toughs with drooping soaplocks jump out of the bushes. One twirls a heavy leather sling shot. The other points a rusty rifle. My stomach drops. No! No! No! My clammy hands slip on the reins.
Lucy explodes out of her seat like a firecracker. “What do you think you’re doing!” Again, it isn’t a question. “Get those limbs off the road. How do you expect us to pass?”
Rifle Boy chuckles. “Well, that’s the point, darlin’. We don’t expect you to pass.”
“Oh, wait! Yes we do,” Sling Shot laughs. “We expect you to pass your money. To us.” Cocky—and mean—they amble closer.
Lucy passed a heavy bag of money to Beany two months ago, and I know the girl ain’t gonna part with one more shiny coin.
“Don’t point those guns at us.” Hands on her hips, elbows sticking out like bent corn stalks, she stamps her foot.
“Shut up!” I mumble, pulling her back onto the seat. Why can’t these baby outlaws practice on somebody else?
Rifle Boy grins wide. Jerks the gun barrel at Lucy—then me—then at the sorrel mare. Taps the trigger threateningly. I flush hot and cold.
Sling Shot tosses a heavy stone up and down in his left hand. With an exaggerated motion, he drops it into the pouch and twirls the weapon menacingly. If he’s any good at all, he can kill one of us. I don’t know what to do—other than fight—and I definitely want no part of flying fists and bashing boots.
“Get ’em, Tess!”
Cripes! Lucy’s siccin’ me on them like I’m a dog!
The boys yuck. The colored maid does not move.
“You’re a funny little gal.” Rifle Boy approaches my side of the wagon, but his eyes are on Lucy. “Kinda cute, too.”
He glances at me. “This your boyfriend?”
With one quick move, he yanks me off the wagon seat and knees me in the stomach on the way down. Lucy gasps.
I land on my belly in the dirt, the wind knocked out of me, the sole of Sling Shot’s boot pressing on the back of my neck. Sickening pictures of Big Slaver kicking August flash through my head. Beany’s tragic screams echo in my ears.
Rifle Boy pulls Lucy off the wagon and snatches at her small black purse. “Gimme that!”
“No!” Lucy slaps his hand.
Chuckling, he flashes green teeth.
“She’s a feisty one, ain’t she?”
But his face turns cruel. He knocks Lucy down with a whack to the side of her head and yanks the purse away. Up on the wagon seat, the maid sits still as a stone. Obviously, she knows better than to get tangled up in white folks’ squabbles.
I struggle to regain my breath. If I lay here long enough, these thugs might just take the loot and run. Rifle Boy stuffs paper money into his pants pocket and throws Lucy’s bag in the dirt.
It’s almost over.
He bends over Lucy laying on the ground, stunned.
“Thanks, honey. Ain’t you a sweetheart to come driving down the road just when I need some cash.”
Any minute now, they’ll leave.
“But, you know what? You’re so cute, I’m gonna bring you along for company.” Rifle Boy jerks Lucy to her feet.
She struggles and kicks at him. “Let go of me!”
Rifle Boy laughs.
Sling Shot takes his foot off my neck and kicks playfully at my side. I steel my gut for a real shot from his pointy toed boot.
“Look at that! Your boyfriend here ain’t worth squat!” Sling Shot draws back his foot. “You need a real man!”
The gunshot scares me so bad I wet my pants. Lordy, did that devil shoot Lucy? The maid?