It is August 1854 in Detroit, MI. Twelve-year-old Willie studies his school lessons and works as a delivery boy at the bakeshop owned and run by his Uncle Moses, a former slave . Willie suspects his uncle may be working with an organization that helps other enslaved blacks escape bondage. But before Willie can find out about Uncle Moses, he finds himself on his own liberation adventure.
He had done it. Twelve-year-old Willie had sneeked past his uncle’s closed door and gotten out of the house without being noticed. It was well past midnight, and the sun had been down for hours. Yet the summer air was as hot as it had been at noon, and thick with humidity. Even though he was wearing his thinnest shirt and breeches, sweat streamed out of every pore. His clothes were soaked with perspiration and plastered to his body. He tugged at the cotton shirt that kept twisting around his waist like a vine. Willie walked quickly and quietly on the grass near the edge of the cobblestone street, taking care to stay out of the light that was cast by lanterns on a few buildings. He looked around. No tellin’ what would happen if I was being followed. Don’t see nobody. Good. If I keep pace, I’ll reach the river soon.
The sky was cloudy and starless. As Willie got farther from the streets and closer to the river, the light became dimmer, the air more humid, and river smell fishier. The moist air hung on him like a wet wool coat. Beads of sweat popped up along his hairline and rolled into his eyes in skinny hot streams. He could barely see to follow the narrow dirt path that led from the street. He wiped at the sweat and kept walking until he neared the riverbank, then pulled off his leather-bottom shoes and stuck one in each pocket. He hunched low, continuing on to the dock, making sure to stay in the shadows. He stopped. The water was completely still. In the dark it looked flat, stretching out like black glass, but there was something else. He saw a boat anchored near the dock. It was a steamboat. He squinted. There was a name painted on the side, but it was too dark to make out the letters without getting closer. Is this the boat I heard them whispering about today?
Willie replayed the conversation from earlier that day in his mind. He was making his regular delivery to the steamboat, the North Star. His uncle owned a bakeshop and had a deal with the ship’s head cook to deliver bread and pastries whenever the North Star was docked in Detroit. John Lee, a porter on the North Star, was talking to a man Willie had never seen before. They spoke about a boat, the T. Whitney, which moved freight north. Only, the way they talked about “freight” sounded like they were talking about people, and “north” sounded like freedom. Whether he was right or wrong, Willie intended to find out tonight.
Piles of huge rocks edged the Detroit River. Taking care not to slip, Willie slowly stepped a bare foot onto a boulder. Years of surf slapping the shoreline had beaten the rocks’ surface until they were smooth. Most nights, the rocks would be wet and slippery from the current. Tonight, there were no waves because there was no wind, not even a breeze. Sweat poured from his face, neck, and down his chest like he was standing under a water pump.
Willie crouched, easing his way down the rocks not far from the dock. The one good thing about no wind was that the rocks were dry, mostly. If he could get to it without being noticed, the dock would provide the perfect cover and give him a full view of the Whitney’s late-night activities. More sweat came with every move Willie made. It crawled down his legs and ankles like tiny centipedes. The wide wooden posts that supported the dock were only a couple of steps away. Willie raised his right foot and lowered it onto the next rock. Thin trails of sweat slid between his toes and under his foot. His foot kept moving, sliding downward. He stepped down with his left foot. Slip. Then, his right. Slide. Left. Slip. Right. Slide. Willy lunged forward and flung his arms around one of the posts. Both shins slammed against the rocks. He wanted to scream. He pressed his lips together and clenched his teeth so hard his jaw almost locked. Willie hung onto the post and prayed no one heard him.
Suddenly, Willie heard faint thuds and the planks creak softly. Someone was coming. Willie ducked around the post and clambered under the dock on his hands and knees. He crawled farther back. His legs were on fire. The sound of footsteps overhead and the realization that he could be caught made every muscle in Willie’s lanky body knot up. Sneaking out of the house didn’t seem like such a good idea now.