The next night, the five gathered under the live oak just past 10 p.m. They had all wandered in separately, roughly five minutes apart, to avoid being seen congregating or wandering together, but the streets and canals were mostly empty. Master Williams had been considered too old to enlist, so he had been a recruiter and financier of the War effort, but Ezekiel had not seen him in days, and when he left his quarters that morning for the docks, he saw no movement up at the main house. He supposed, but didn’t confirm, that they had all gone inland to safer areas. No sense calling attention to himself, though, and seeing if they were around.
He had gone out for his normal catch, but he didn’t focus heavily on how the sea felt that day and which way the fish were running or where they were congregating. There were fewer people to eat those fish, the price was falling, and he had already moved on from these shores in his mind the night before.
Dempsey grabbed shovels from behind a row of bushes and distributed them. “All together now,” he said, and they all chipped into the dirt.
They had buried the box only about a foot down, and with the five of them huffing and puffing, they hit it within a couple of minutes, and within ten minutes, they had it out. Gerald was at Ezekiel’s elbow, and as they leaned against their shovels for a moment, Ezekiel said to him, “Dempsey done tole me that you remembered me for this.”
“Uh huh,” said Gerald.
“I thank you for that.”
“We brothers,” said Gerald.
Dempsey stooped and opened the box.
“Why don’t we just take the box?” said Marvin.
Dempsey pulled out a bottle and five slim glasses. “Because I packed something special for the occasion.” He poured a bit of champagne into each glass. “They had this in the room with the plans. They ain’t gonna use it no mo, so I freed it for me and my four free friends.”
They slowly and quietly clinked glasses, and Ezekiel downed the champagne, feeling the fizz and warmth sting his mouth and warm his throat as it slid down. He had never had champagne—it didn’t burn as hot as moonshine, and it was sweet. It was his first taste of freedom.
“Now we bring the box,” said Dempsey.
They put the glasses and bottle back in next to the charts, and Dempsey sealed it up.
“I got this,” said Thomas. He was the tallest and thickest, with broad shoulders and a sinewy back. He had started out on his master’s plantation working the fields, but when he had outgrown the other men and the overseer how much he could move, he made mention of it to the master who also had a small fleet of sloops. They had moved him down to the docks to work with the watermen, and he could easily move the heavy nets, the loads of fish and oysters, but he was really there for security—to cut down on theft from some of the other watermen whose catches might come up short, whose masters might be looking for more than they were bringing in. He had been in many brawls, and he had the scars on his knuckles and torso to prove it. There were rumors about him—that he had killed one man over a theft and another over a woman slave who had been sold from his plantation to another. But if you asked him about it, Thomas would mostly give you a half smile and change the subject.
They started out of the cemetery separate from each other, moving out every two minutes or so. But Ezekiel quickly saw that they were the only ones out, that there were no faces in windows of houses, no people wandering around late, no watering holes letting out late. A stillness and heaviness hung over the docks and the city, as everyone awaited the arrival of the invader. By the time they reached the dock with the pilot boat, they had all rejoined each other. They kept their voices low and loaded in the box in the boat, then all settled into place. They pushed off, and Ezekiel assumed his place with an oar, helping to power the boat with the others until they could clear the immediate harbor.
Under the star-specked night sky, they unfurled the sails and took up positions—they had never all sailed together before, and yet, they migrated to positions and jobs in the boat as though they had done it together all their lives. The boat cut the calm waters, heading southeast for the gap between Shackelford Banks on the east side and Fort Macon on the west side. They did not speak, lest their voices carry over the waters and the cannons of Fort Macon be awakened from slumber. The barrier islands were only a couple of miles from the harbor, and you could see them on clear days.
As they neared the inlet, the midnight moon suddenly emerged and lit the water for miles in every direction. And just to the southeast, they saw the fort, dark and forbidding, seeming almost to float on the gently rolling sea. Fort Macon had reason to stay quiet—a mile or so beyond were the ships of the North Atlantic Blockade . . . Union ships that stopped the cotton from going out and the payments, clothes, and guns from coming in. Hatteras had been taken over by a combined US Navy and Army action—it could happen at Macon; it could happen anywhere along the coast or barrier islands.
They sailed in silence through the inlet, knowing those guns were the last obstacles before they had to convince the Union men on those ships. They all sunk deep into the boat as they passed under the guns and into the open waters, and Ezekiel found his tension easing the further they got from those southern guns. At last, they could see the huge Union blockade ships, rocking gently on the sea, lit up under the late-night moon. To Ezekiel, they might as well have each been a whole country.
Marvin steered them toward the nearest vessel, and soon enough, they were within shouting distance.
“Come no further and state your intention,” a voice called from the lookout of the gunship.
Dempsey stood. “We are five Africans seeking freedom.”
There was no response for several long moments. Dempsey shifted in place and called again, “We have charts and maps. The waterways of Beaufort. How to get everywhere.”
Several more long moments passed. “Permission to come aboard,” the voice said at last.