It has been a busy summer. Friends and family visits, the arrival of a grandson, the first birthday of a granddaughter, there did not seem to be enough time to write. After a summer break, The Chatham Writers Group resumed activities with a flourish this past Monday. The prompt was to write about a scar, or scars, in any genre. I chose a work of fiction. This is the 3rd story I have written about slavery and the Underground Railroad with Alexandria, Virginia and Fairfax County, Virginia as the backdrop. The central character is the enslaved young man, Galileo Washburn, who first appeared in my post “Freedom”. For clarification, I added a few more lines to my story.

Alexandria, Virginia waterfront in the 1850’s. The backdrop of my story.


Alexandria, Virginia. April, 1855

“Your skills at handling mule teams never ceases to amaze me Galileo,” drawled Philo Washburn, “this wagon weighs nearly a ton and yet these mules are pulling as though it weighs two pounds, there’s no struggle a’tall.”

“Thank you sir,” replied Galileo Washburn. 

“Come on Galileo, you can drop the formality.  It’s just us, you can call me Philo.  I would like that.  We’re practically brothers.”

“Just the same sir, it don’t feel right, I am sorry.”

“Alright, suit yourself, maybe one of these days you’ll feel comfortable enough to say my name in general conversation.”

Galileo lapsed into silence as he thought, “We are brothers, Philo, or half-brothers.  Your Daddy, Asa, is my Daddy too.   You know it, but won’t fully accept it.”  And Galileo was anything but comfortable.  Asa Washburn was supposed to accompany him on the trip to Alexandria, but he was so hungover after a night of bourbon swilling and card playing, he directed Philo to go in his place.  The Harvard educated Philo was the real brains and drive to the Washburn & Sons business endeavors, the polar opposite of his father & brother, both foolhardy winesops.  Galileo was in a heightened state of anxiety because the tobacco laden wagon had a false bottom, where two men, two women and four children lay, seeking freedom from the bonds of slavery. He hoped & prayed the keen Philo would not detect anything amiss and that the human cargo would maintain their silence.

Galileo entered Alexandria and guided the wagon down Prince Street toward the docks lining the Potomac River.  Once at the wharf, conductors from the Underground Railroad were to assist with the escape of the 8 fugitives in the false bottom.  He didn’t now the identity of the conductors, nor their plan.  The only thing he knew was someone would tell him which wharf to bring his wagon.  He also knew Philo Washburn had to jump off at the junction with Pitt Street to conduct business at a nearby bank.  

After Philo disembarked, the wagon continued on to the wharf.  Galileo had just begun to breathe a little easier when a voice barked, “You, boy! Stop!”

Yanking gently on the reins, Galileo turned to the source of the voice and saw four rough looking characters sauntering to the wagon.  They were garbed in the unofficial uniform of the slave catcher; jackets hanging to their ankles, a whip coiled on one hip and a Colt’s Dragoon revolver on the other.  He knew there was a Bowie knife concealed somewhere as well.  The leader of the group was the most striking in appearance.  Unblinking, hard eyes as blue as crystal burned beneath the shade of his hat brim.  His most distinctive feature was a scar on the left side of his cheek, coursing from the corner of his lip to his ear lobe.  

“What you got in the wagon, boy.”  The scarred man’s voice was a hoarse rasp.

“A hogshead of tobacco sir.  I have to deliver it to the wharf.” 

“What ship?” Asked the scarred one.

“Don’t yet know sir, someone’s supposed to direct me when they see the Washburn name on the wagon.”

Those blue eyes stared with such intensity, Galileo had the sensation the man could read every thought swirling in his mind.

The other three men had been slowly walking around the wagon, banging on the tobacco barrel, checking the wagon gate.  One spoke to the scarred man, “Let ‘em go Slash, ain’t nothin’ out a sorts here.”

The man named Slash gave Galileo one more long, intense stare, then spun around and walked away. Watching the men vdisappear into a tavern, he let out a big sigh, uttered, “Sweet Jesus,” snapped the reins and led the team to the river.  Whispering to his passengers in their native Krio, he said, “Almost there folks, almost there.  Be steady now.”

Slave catchers searching for fugitive slaves

Arriving at the row of wharves, he turned the team to  where the tobacco freighters were moored.  Galileo moved slowly along the row of ships, allowing time for the unknown parties to spot the Washburn name on the wagon side.  Because he was looking to his left, he was startled enough to nearly leap from his seat when he heard the now familiar rasp of the scarred man’s voice coming to him from his right, “Yo, boy, stop!”

Galileo’s heart pounded hard, his throat so tight the words “Yes sir” sounded like a frog croak.  The man appeared from the side of a sail repair shop and stalked towards him, the intense blue eyes burning holes in his soul. Pulling the coiled whip from his hip, the man called Slash pointed the handle at Galileo.  But his voice got softer.

“Are you the one they call Galileo?” He asked.

“Yes sir.” 

“I apologize for my harshness, I have to maintain a certain persona. I hope you understand. Take your cargo to The Schuyler, four wharves down.  Don’t wait on your wagon, dismount and go to the shipping office. Stay there until someone hands you your documents.  Your wagon will be empty and you can be on your way.”

The scarred man began to walk away, but stopped, turned and said, “You are a very brave man, young Galileo.  Godspeed.” Then he was gone.

Reining in at The Schuyler, Galileo jumped down from the wagon and went to the shipping office as instructed.  In a matter of minutes, a man wearing the uniform of a ship’s captain entered the office with a packet of documents.  As he handed them over, Galileo was startled to see the deep outline of a scar in the shape of the letter “S” on the man’s palm.  Was there a second “S” on his palm?  The packet of documents covered half of the hand.  Galileo looked up at The Schuyler’s Captain, eyes wide and brow furrowed with surprise.  Could this man be carrying the brand of a slave stealer?  Galileo had heard rumors of some people caught transporting fugutive slaves had the double S brand burned into the palm of our hand. 

The Captain smiled and reached to grasp Galileo’s shoulder.  “Your cargo was delivered in good order and is safely stored below.  I hope we meet again, young man.”  

The Double “S” Slave Stealer Brand. Note: Palm of Captain Jonathan Walker of Harwich, MA. Was imprisoned and branded after being caught transporting fugitive slaves to freedom.

Guiding the mule team back up Prince Street, Galileo stopped at the junction with Pitt Street to let Philo Washburn climb onto the empty wagon.  As he passed the packet of shipping documents over, Philo asked how the transfer of cargo went.

“Uneventful sir, as easy as pie,” answered Galileo.

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Writers Group

September 12, 2022

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