Millie had cleared away the dinner dishes and tucked Lucius into his bed. At the rough-hewn kitchen table in the one room cabin, August and Joe smoked sweet burley in their cob pipes. "That's fine leaf, Joe." The sailor exhaled a blue cloud and said "yep. Comes from ol Virginny. I was workin over there last fall." Joe's smile dissipated with the smoke ring and he nodded his head toward Millie at the wash basin. "She know our plans?" He asked.
"Yeah, Joe, but she's real scared. She scared to run, scared to stay and lose her boy." Millie put the last of the dishes on the shelf and came to sit with them, her eyes red-rimmed. "Coffee's brewin", she said. Joe laid his calloused hand on hers and said "everythings gonna be fine. In a year you and your family'll all be free, Millie."
"But if we caught..."
"You won't be. Lots of others have gone this way before." Joe put his pipe down on the table as Millie poured strong coffee. "Is Lucius asleep?" said Joe. Millie nodded. "I like the way you sing the Drinking Gourd song, Millie. Now you have to remember it just like I taught you. Now I'll tell you what it means. It's a map."
August paused, his coffee cup against his lips. "A map? What you mean?"
Joe said "Millie, sing the first part."
Very softly she sang
"Follow the drinking gourd
Follow the Drinking Gourd
The old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom
Follow the drinking gourd"
Joe took a cinder from the stove and drew a pattern on the table. "You recognize that?"
"That the Big Dipper?"
Joe nodded. "That's the drinking gourd. And it points to a bright star here..." he made another dot. "That's the North Star. You steer toward that and you are headed toward the north, to Freedom."
"Listen closely. 'When the sun goes back and the first quail calls'... that means the time for you to leave at the end of winter. 'The river bank makes a mighty good road'. You follow the Tombigbee north, always traveling at night. 'Dead trees point you the way. It's left foot peg foot travelin on'. Look for my footprint on the big trees along the river. That's how you know you're on the right track. What's next?"
"Where the river ends between two hills
Follow the drinking gourd
There's another river on the other side."
"There is a safe house three miles up the Tombigbee. You should be able to reach it by traveling all night. You will see my footprint twice on a tree near that house. You will see two big trees that look like two folks dancing. Stop at the house and tell them you are a friend of Peg Leg Joe. You can rest up there for a week or so, and the folks will give you supplies for the next leg of the trip. You'll have a load to carry. Keep following the drinking gourd north along the Tombigbee until the river seems to end, two weeks journey north of the Safe House. Cross the hills staying due north until you see the Tennessee River below. Follow it North, too. What comes next Millie?"
"Where the other river meets the great big one
Follow the Drinking Gourd
The old man's waiting on the other side
Follow the Drinking Gourd".
"Aye! The Tennessee will meet the Ohio, but you'll have a long journey to get there. It will be near Winter by that time, and the Ohio will be frozen. If not, you have to wait for the ice to come. Go north along the Ohio until you see the double track on an oak tree. That's the crossing. I'll be on the other side, in Illinois, to guide you from there. Be careful crossing the Ohio! It is treacherous, and never freezes solid."
Millie said "its such a long way. I never even been off this plantation. Nor has August."
"You'll be slaves no more. Is it too long a journey for that?" Joe held out his hands, saying "take my hands in yours." They did so.
"Oh Lord Jesus, through whom all things are possible, smile on this family and see them safe to the Promised Land. In Christ's name we ask it."
"Amen," said Millie and August.
Joe rose from the table, his false leg tapping a ryhthm as he walked to the door. He opened it, and just for a second ran his finger along the edge. "It's a good door I made ye, didn't I?" He tipped his billed cap, said "I'll see you in Illinois," and left.