The ten miles' journey from New Orleans to the army camp that was perched between Lake Pontchartrain and the river had been treacherous and lengthy. William avoided all roads at any cost, regardless of whether they were dirt or paved. He didn't know when his mas' would discover that he had fled—but he was all too aware of the slave catchers camped right outside the city.
Any man they captured would suffer greatly. Lashings that ripped the skin off their back, fleur-de-lis brands marking the bearer as untrustworthy. And for those with particularly brutal masters—with enough slaves to spare—bodies doused with kerosene and lit on fire, their burning flesh a reminder to the others on the plantation that it was never worth it to run.
He took the route that Stella had advised, first through the swampland, then hugging the bayous and creeping through boggy marshes and wetlands that had to be navigated to reach higher ground. The roots of bald cypress trees and tupelo gums intertwined beneath the murky water of the ravines, causing William to stumble countless times.
He had nearly been caught three times since he'd left Stella, but he kept running, hearing her voice in his head urging him on. He was driven by his mother's spirit, too, each stretch toward freedom defying those who'd robbed her of her song. In the hour right before dawn, the sound of barking dogs was dangerously close. He threw himself into the fetid water, hoping to evade the bloodhounds, shivering until the patrollers finally moved away.
He reached the enlistment camp by daybreak, where he found hundreds of men already in line eager to join the Union cause. Some had traveled for days, through back alleys or the more dangerous open fields. Like William, all of them had to evade mercenaries eager to beat and shackle them before returning them to their masters for a rich reward.
The man in front of William stood barefoot, the cuffs of his pants reduced to a ragged edge of fringe. Fingers balled at his sides, he inched up the snaking line to the medical surgeon's tent, leaving a stamp of blood with each step. The dry earth, greedy for every ounce of moisture, drank the man's dark footprint almost instantly, only to have it replaced with another.
"Next!" Outside the mouth of the tent's entrance, one of the Union soldiers waved another man inside.
William looked down at his own narrow feet. The pair of waterlogged and sweat-stained calfskin oxfords he had on were not the typical shoes of a "contraband" man running from slavery. His herringbone trousers had a gash down the side. His tweed jacket was ripped at the elbow, and somewhere between New Orleans and Jefferson County he had lost his hat. Yet, despite his harrowing journey, his shoes remained miraculously intact.
Inside his jacket, tucked within the pocket of his waistcoat, he located the handkerchief Stella had embroidered. He surreptitiously ran his fingers over the small flower she'd stitched carefully with blue thread. Even now, with the stench of rot and death heavy in the air, the buzzing of flies, and the intense hunger in his belly, thoughts of Stella were his constant companions. He brought the white cotton cloth to his nose and inhaled it, desperately searching for the last traces of her distinct scent. William knew breath was not something that always came from the lungs, but could break forth from the heart and mind as well, filling a body with life when it needed it most.
In the corner of the tent where William was told to undress, Jacob Kling sat bent over a thick ledger. Dark curls sprouted from beneath his navy cap, and a smudge of black ink stained his index finger as he recorded the medical surgeon's clinical observations about the prior recruit. Twenty-two years old. Negro. 5'9". Weight 175 pounds. Despite superficial wound to left foot, a solid build and determined spirit. Qualified for military duty.
The medical surgeon chose his words carefully when Jacob first arrived at the examination tent to assist with the notetaking. "It's a sorry situation. We can't accept every man who wants to join up, despite the lengths they may have taken to get here," he explained as he opened his black leather physician's bag and arranged his tools on a side table. "The army asks me to separate out the strong from the weak. I have given up trying to determine whether a man is a fugitive," the doctor remarked, noting the futility of dividing the recently emancipated from those who had fled from bondage. "Remember, these men will not be lifting muskets, but rather wielding shovels, pickaxes and hoes. We can only take the ones who are free from both bodily defects and have sufficient sense to follow orders." He cleared his throat and pulled at his ash-colored beard. "In other words, Private Kling, my job is rather straightforward. It is not to choose who is in every way good, but to reject who is positively unfit."