Over and Away
It was not until later that I realized that the month had changed as I lay awake in my bed, one day passing into another. I heard the last sound from somewhere in the house, and then all was quiet. I lay still a while long, and then arose to finish my preparations for my escape. I did not take much, and so was ready within a short span of time.
I carefully raised the window, took one more look around at my place of confinement, and then placed one leg outside the window so that my foot rested on a convenient gutter. I prayed that it would hold my weight, but I had lost so much during my illness and period of inactivity from not eating very much that it held firm. I held onto the window sill and then eased my way over to the drainpipe which I knew from looking at it from the ground to be substantial. I clambered down the side of the house holding on to the pipe until at last I gained the ground.
Dressed in my lieutenant’s uniform, I was but one of several soldiers I encountered along my way to the canal that ran past Georgetown. My plan was to walk along the tow path until I came to a place that I could safely cross the river, make my way to Winchester and finally arrive at home. I knew Eleanor would discover my absence when she arose in a few hours, and I prayed that I would arrive in Winchester before she could send word there that I was missing. I did not know how she communicated with her agent in that town. I surmised she had one, else how could she have known of my presence there before?
As I came to the tow path, I remembered I did not of course have any papers or orders with me. I suppose I could have claimed that they were lost, but that might arouse suspicion and further investigation, so I determined to hide myself whenever I heard someone coming, knowing that this would slow my progress, but I determined it to be a necessary action.
I walked along, guided by the sound of the water to my left since I could see but very little with no moon to light my way. I had heard that most boatmen tied up around midnight and then started up again by three or four AM. That would give me some time to put some distance between me and my tormentor.
I could make out the new moon, so I could judge time, and it was about four when I first heard someone coming toward me. I made my way into the bushes lining the towpath, praying that there would not be a drop off or other declivity close by which would bring me to ruin. I stayed hidden until I judged it safe to regain the path.
I set off again, but encountered no one until the sun began to rise. I hid myself as I heard several canal men coming and stayed hidden until they had passed. I then resumed my way, thinking I would stop soon to eat the hardtack I had brought with me. I searched for a small creek to soak the hardtack in, for it is very hard when unmoistened, found one, wet my hardtack, and chewed on it as I walked along.
Eleanor would be rising soon, and with that thought, I hastened my steps. I must reach Laurel before Eleanor was able to have someone harm my bride. I found that thinking of Laurel buoyed my spirits, and I was in a fine mood as I walked along through what promised to be a fine day.
I had to hide myself again, and while crouching in the bushes, I felt an itching in my hands and on my face. I knew what had happened because I had been stricken with this condition before. I had acquired poison ivy when I hid in the bushes earlier. I wet my bandana and ran it over my face and hands, but it did little to alleviate my torment.
As I went back to the path, I tried to take my mind from the infernal itching by seeing if I could identify the birds that sang in the woods all around me. I found I could do so correctly about nine times out of ten, which I counted a fair effort. Then I had a thought: when I encountered anyone, I would tell them my rash was evidence of a contagious disease, which indeed it was, but not the contagion that they thought. This stratagem would allow me to make a faster progress, so I lengthened my stride and soon found myself at the house of a lock keeper where the Potomac tumbled over some great rocks. It was something to behold, so I stayed for a moment to appreciate the power and beauty of this display of God and nature. I roused myself from my reverie and approached the stone house.
A small child about four years old was sitting on a stone in from of the house. I kept my distance as part of my ruse, although I would not in any case come close enough to the child to infect her. “Where are your parents?” I called.
She looked at me and made no answer, so I repeated my question, this time in a louder voice. Again she said nothing.
I was pondering this state of affairs when a woman, presumably her mother, came out of the house. “She’s deaf,” she said. “She can’t hear you.”
“I’m sorry. I did not know.”
“You couldn’t have known. How can I help you?” Apparently they were accustomed to visitors.
“I wonder if you would favor me with some food. I have money.”
“I will give you some food. It happens that my brother supplies to the army, and he gives us from that.”
“I am much obliged. I have a contagion, so if you would leave a plate outside and go back in, I will come over and get it.”
“Thank you for being careful of our well-being.”
“It is the least I can do.”
“Where are you bound?”
“To rejoin my regiment near Winchester.”
“Would not the roads be easier? You could find a ride with the many wagons that use them.”
“They would, but I prefer the tranquility and beauty of the tow path. I have seen so many hideous, I need to calm my soul.”
“I understand. I will pray for you.”
“I thank you. Now I must be on my way. God bless you.”
“And He you. Good-bye, soldier.”
“Good-bye, kind lady.”
I was fortunate to encounter such a kind and Christian soul. She left the plate outside as I asked her, and I soon was filling my stomach with biscuits and fatback. She also left a container of water, which would be helpful to me, for the day was growing warm already.
I finished the food and left the plate for her. I surmised that she wanted me to take the container, so I put that in my pack and went on my way. I still had miles to go, and I knew not what I would encounter. And so, I had made a good start toward seeing Laurel again.