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216 pages
Apr 2008
Kregel Publications

The Light Across the River

by Stephanie Reed

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No one saw Johnny slip out the door.

He climbed the hedge apple tree and hunched alone in the chilly darkness. When would things ever change? Brothers and sisters crammed in edgewise, all of them taller, stronger, faster, or smarter than he was. Father and Mother frantically busy with the church, family, and a million other things. They never took any more notice of him than to say, “Johnny, do this,” or “Johnny, do that.”

The only person who’d ever paid him any mind was Mandy, and now she belonged to Lowry. That hurt, but what surprised him more was how much Lowry’s words hurt. He’d as good as called Johnny a traitor by implying that he would spill the family secret.

He could not deny that it was tempting to tell about the Underground. The older boys and Ibby told exciting stories about how the family helped fugitive slaves. What frustrated the life out of him was that he must never breathe a word to anyone else. Why couldn’t Father see how wrong it was to keep quiet? It seemed so simple to Johnny. If only people could know how horrible slavery was! If only they knew the great risks men took to be free!

A flicker caught his eye; somebody had placed the signal light in the upstairs window. The soft glow steadied. Further back than Johnny remembered, lights had burned in the two side windows and in the front. When a slave across the river in Kentucky wanted to know where John Rankin lived, he looked for the light.

The yard brightened and dimmed. Somebody had come out the front door. Sure enough, two dark shapes swished through the wet grass toward the hill; Cal and Sam were headed to town. They would pass the evening at Thomas McCague’s house on Front Street to watch for fugitive slaves. Father still refused to go to Kentucky to help the slaves, but whenever possible, he offered aid the minute they set foot on Ohio soil. As long as slave escapes continued thicker than raisins in a pie, that would remain the rule.

Johnny knew Father’s other rules, too: keep the fugitive ahead of the pursuer, use a different station each time, and never talk to anyone, not even his best friends, about the runaways. But had Father ever let him help a fugitive? No, and he was older than Lowry had been when he first helped a slave.

Lowry’s remark still burned. Perhaps if Johnny assured Father that he would never reveal the family business, he would make him a conductor.

He vaulted from the tree, bound and determined to set matters straight. Tomorrow night he would keep watch from Thomas McCague’s house or know the reason why.