Cora is the main character of the novel, and her journey begins with the Georgia plantation where she is a slave. Ajarry is Cora’s grandmother, who was kidnapped in Africa and sold into slavery in America. The book begins with the story of her passage across the Atlantic on a boat called The Nanny. Upon arrival in Charleston, she is sold to a plantation owner and then resold several times before arriving at the Randall plantation in Georgia. She marries three men and bears five children, but only Cora’s mother, Mabel, survives. Ajarry dies in the cotton fields of “a knot in her brain,” probably a stroke or brain aneurism.
Cora, who is 15 years old when the book begins, has a very difficult life on the plantation, in part because she has conflicts with the other slaves. The story of her life on the Randall plantation begins with the announcement of “Jockey’s birthday,” an invented holiday to celebrate the oldest slave’s supposed birthday. Slaves do not know their actual birthdays, but sometimes (twice a year) it is announced that it is Jockey’s birthday and the slaves on the northern part of the plantation, where Cora lives, come together for a feast and activities after their half-day of work on a Sunday.
Cora has to fight to protect a small plot of land in the slave quarters, or village, that was staked out by her grandmother, Ajarry, and passed on to her mother, Mabel. Cora has very low status in the slave quarters. But even after her mother Mabel “vanished,” leaving her “a stray” at age 10 with no support, she has held onto her plot, where she grows vegetables. Ava, her mother’s enemy, got Cora relocated to the Hob, the living quarters for the most troubled and damaged women, many of whom had been raped and brutalized and lost their children. Even though Ava threatens to have her garden taken from her, Cora holds on.
The second threat to Cora’s garden comes from a newly arrived slave, Blake, who is strong. He builds a doghouse on Cora’s plot after destroying her plants. Cora is filled with rage, gets a hatchet, and chops up the doghouse, even severing the dog’s tail. She knows Blake and his friends could kill her, but she is willing to hurt him as much as she can with the hatchet if he attacks her. He sees the dangerous look in her eye and leaves her alone.
A few years later, after she gets her period, Cora is raped by Blake’s friends Pot and Edward, and two other slaves. Still, she maintains her mental and physical health and becomes the longest surviving resident of the Hob.
Celebrations like Jockey’s birthday only happen on the northern half of the Randall plantation, which is run by James Randall. He doesn’t pay much attention to his slaves, satisfied with stability and the slow growth of his estate. He doesn’t overwork his slaves. His brother Terrance, however, is cruel; he overworks his slaves on the southern half and treats them brutally.
Cora runs the children’s races at Jockey’s birthday, taking special care of Chester, a young slave who is also “a stray,” because his parents had been sold to another owner. Cora’s friend Lovey, a fun-loving girl, helps her. While everyone is eating, another slave, Caesar, tells Cora he plans to run away and asks her to come with him. She says no.
James and Terrance Randall, sons of the plantation owner who bought Ajarry, arrive at the party with the overseer Connelly and cause trouble. They ask for a slave named Michael to be brought forward to recite the Declaration of Independence, but Michael has been killed by the overseer, who didn’t inform James. Then the men tell the slaves to dance. While dancing, Chester bumps into Terrance Randall and a drop of wine spills onto his sleeve. Terrance begins to mercilessly beat Chester. Cora is gripped by the same fury she felt toward Blake and she steps up to defend the boy, covering his body with hers and grabbing Terrance’s cane. She is beaten unconscious.
Over the three mornings after Jockey’s birthday, Cora and Chester are whipped savagely by the overseer, Connelly. The women of Hob nurse Cora back to health. She has a permanent scar on her forehead in the shape of an X from Terrance’s cane.
Sitting on a maple stump in her garden plot at night, Cora thinks about her mother Mabel running away from the plantation. Mabel told no one of her plan, and she was the only runaway slave who was never brought back to the Randall plantation. After a long search for her, the Randalls hired Ridgeway, a slave catcher, who searched for Mabel for two years before giving up. He came to the plantation to apologize to the Randalls personally, with the heads of two runaway slaves in a sack for delivery to another landowner.
After James Randall dies, his cruel brother Terrance takes over the northern half of the plantation. While he is in New Orleans settling James’s affairs, Caesar returns to ask Cora again to escape with him. Meanwhile, a slave named Big Anthony attempts to run away. Big Anthony is captured and returned. Terrance holds a sort of “garden party” attended by white people from Savannah, Georgia, and all the slaves, to watch as he burns Big Anthony alive. He surveys the northern section slaves, including Cora. It is clear to Cora that she needs to join Caesar in running away.
To spare them punishment, Cora doesn’t tell anyone of her plan to run away with Caesar.
Caesar has skills from his earlier life as a slave in Virginia that help them find the underground railroad. In Virginia, he learned to read and lived under the promise that he and his parents would be freed when their owner, a widow named Mrs. Garner, died. However, Mrs. Garner didn’t leave a will and her daughter sold the family of slaves, splitting them up, and sending Caesar to the Randalls. Because Caesar is a skilled wood worker, he makes a connection with a white man named Fletcher at the Sunday market where Caesar sells wooden bowls. Fletcher hates slavery and sees that Caesar can read. Fletcher tells Caesar that if he can make it the 30 miles to his shop, he will take him to a stop on the underground railroad, and a train will take him north to freedom.
Caesar and Cora take off at night through the fields and swamps. In the swamp, they are joined by Cora’s friend Lovey. They have no choice but to allow Lovey to go with them because if Lovey returned, she would give them away. They make it out of the swamp and sleep in a hidden spot during the day. The second night, they are walking in the woods alongside farmland and a group of men hunting hogs try to capture them. After a fierce fight, Cora and Caesar make it away, but Lovey is dragged off into the woods and lost to them, along with most of their provisions. To get away, Cora strikes a 12-year-old white boy in the head with a rock.
Caesar and Cora reach Fletcher’s house and he feeds them, tells them about the furious search for them, and takes them to their first stop on the underground railroad. Lovey, he says, was captured and returned. Rumors are that the boy Cora struck has died, making them murderers as well as runaways. Fletcher hides them in the back of his wagon and they travel all day and into the night until they reach a farmhouse, under which is a train station.
Cora and Cesar are met by the farmer, Lumbly, who gets them onto a train. Lumbly has a horrifying collection covering the side of his barn of all kinds of handcuffs, leg irons, and restraining devices used on slaves. He identifies himself as “a kind of station agent” and takes them into the barn, down through a trap door in the floor, to the platform where the trains will arrive. There are two trains on the schedule, he says. Cora and Caesar decide to take the next one, not knowing where either one will take them. After an hour, the train arrives, and they board the sole boxcar pulled by a black steam engine and proceed through many miles of dark tunnel. When the train stops, they come up into daylight. They see a tall building and learn they are in South Carolina.
This short section tells the story of the slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway. Ridgeway is the son of a Virginia blacksmith. As he grows up, he looks for something active and meaningful to do with his life. At 14 he joins patrols that round up escaped slaves and harass slave villages and free Black men, as well as Native Americans and criminals. He goes north to New Jersey and New York as a bounty hunter to bring back captured fugitive slaves. Up north, he is successful and makes money. Eventually, he puts together a gang of his own, which he brings back to Virginia to work directly for plantation owners, hunting down and capturing escaped slaves. He is unable to catch Cora’s mother, Mabel, but when he is called on to look for runaway Cora, he realizes that there must be a stop on the underground railroad in Georgia and vows to find and destroy it.
South Carolina is a place where Black people can live freely, and this step in Cora’s life is much improved over her circumstances in Georgia. Cora is given fake papers and the alias Bessie Carpenter and a job working as a maid and nanny for a lawyer’s family, the Andersons. Caesar is given the alias Christian Markson and a job in a factory. Technically, Bessie and Christian were bought by the US government when their slave owner went bankrupt, but Sam, the station agent in South Carolina, assures Cora and Caesar they can live as free people in town. Sam is kind and friendly, a local bartender, and will let them know when trains are passing through. Cora lives in a newly built dormitory for Black people, where she is fed, housed in a large room with 80 beds, and given her job. The dormitory is run by a white woman, Miss Lucy, a proctor who encourages Cora to attend classes to learn to read and write and to speak more like a white person.
Cora attends school and asks Miss Lucy to look through her records to see if she can find her mother, Mabel. Meanwhile, Cora is examined by a government doctor on the tenth floor of the Griffin Building, a twelve-story building with an elevator. She is given intelligence tests, asked questions about her origins and general health, then given a physical examination that ends with a blood test. She interprets this as a sign that the white people of South Carolina care about her health and want to help her.
At a Saturday night social for “colored” people, Cora and Caesar meet and tell each other about their lives. Caesar tells her about his job in a factory. They complain about the high prices at the emporium that sells goods to Black residents and the money that is deducted from their wages to cover their room and board. Cora and Caesar, nevertheless, decide to stay in South Carolina and see if they can make a life for themselves. On the way home from the social, Cora witnesses a disturbing sight — a young woman screaming that someone is taking her babies from her. Everyone assumes she is experiencing a flashback to slavery, when children were often taken from their mothers and sold to a new owner. She learns that the young woman is named Gertrude and has been put in a special dormitory, number 40, for women who are traumatized and disturbed. Cora sees it as a version of the Hob.
Miss Lucy tells Cora that she has been assigned a new job at the Museum of Natural Wonders. Cora’s job is to be a human actor in three exhibits: Scenes from Darkest Africa, Life on the Slave Ship, and Typical Day on a Plantation. All three scenes, built in rooms behind glass, are wildly unrealistic. While white characters in the scene are made of wax, three Black women take turns playing the roles of “types” in these scenes while tourists wander by and watch them. One day when she sees the rest of the exhibits in the museum, Cora wonders if any of the scenes from American history there are truthful.
The new hospital in town has opened, and one day a new doctor, Dr. Stevens, tells Cora to consider getting an awful procedure that will mean she can’t have children. Black men line the halls waiting for a vague blood treatment. Dr. Stevens encourages Cora to have her fallopian tubes cut and tied so she won’t have children. She learns that other Black women, those categorized as unfit or those who have two children, are forced into this sterilization. Cora realizes that Gertrude, who was taken to dormitory 40, is a victim of this surgery and that her children were not taken from her during slavery but right there in South Carolina.
The station agent, Sam, calls Cora and Caesar for a meeting to tell them another train will arrive in a few days. Cora asks him if he knows anything about the hospital and he says he has heard a doctor talking at the bar where he works, The Drift. He has learned that the hospital is giving Black men syphilis to study this deadly sexually transmitted disease. He says they are also collecting information on various African tribal identities in an attempt to control the Black population by deciding who can and can’t have children, and to diminish what they think are inherited violent traits. Also, by limiting Black women’s ability to have children, they think they are doing a good thing because they believe slaves will only be free if there are so few of them that they don’t threaten white dominance and power.
Cora goes to see Miss Lucy, who is preparing a set of records she keeps on all the women in her dormitory, and learns a slave catcher has come to town. Cora overhears Miss Lucy telling another proctor that the records are to help a slave catcher identify and apprehend an escaped slave, a “refugee” and a “murderer.” Cora goes to Caesar’s dormitory, but he is working at the factory. She rushes to The Drift and gets Sam’s attention. Sam tells her that the slave catcher is Ridgeway, that the teenage boy she struck while escaping has died, and that Ridgeway is in the bar with his men, including a man who wears a necklace of human ears. He takes Cora to his house and tells her he will get Caesar but she should wait on the station platform for them. She goes down to the platform with a lantern and some food, but Caesar and Sam never arrive. After more time passes, she hears people upstairs trampling Sam’s kitchen, and when things fall silent, she realizes from the sound of popping glass that the house is on fire. Cora is alone and hungry in the dark.
This short section tells the early story of Aloysius Stevens, Cora’s doctor in South Carolina who recommended she get sterilized. Stevens started out as a medical student in Boston. To keep his fellowship, he works nights at the Anatomy House, where he helps a man named Carpenter and his sidekick Hobbs, rough characters who steal bodies from graves. As Stevens, Carpenter, and Hobbs travel out to steal a group of Black bodies, Stevens reflects on the history and defense of the practice of stealing bodies. Medical schools need dead bodies for studying anatomy and practicing procedures. Not enough are donated or sold to the schools, so it becomes common practice for “body snatchers” to take them. White people begin to protect the graves of their loved ones overnight, and newspapers and authorities punish these thefts. However, he learns from Carpenter, no one cares about dead Black people, so it is easier and without consequence to rob their graves. Stevens believes the Black people are serving the noble cause of medicine and science and are of more value in the medical schools than they were in life. He begins to think Black people could serve science in many ways while alive, too, a way of thinking that leads to his work experimenting on former slaves as a doctor in South Carolina.
Cora waits in the station below Sam’s cottage for days before another train arrives. She is hungry, the station is dark and full of rats, and she can’t escape her nightmares about what might have happened to Sam and Caesar. Finally, a train passes by, then backs up to the platform. The young conductor tells Cora he isn’t supposed to pick up passengers, but she convinces him to let her ride on the open flatcar. He tells her the Georgia station has been closed, presumably discovered. They travel at an alarming rate into the dark.
The train stops in a station blasted out of the rock of a mountain. Cora wants to go farther, but the conductor explains he is in maintenance and heading back south to report on the condition of the line. She gets out in North Carolina to wait for the station agent.
Cora is found by the station agent, Martin Wells, who helps her up out of the underground station. What she thought was a cave-in and collapse is actually a diversion so no one discovers the station in the mica mine. Wells is alarmed to find her, as he was just coming to leave a note that he couldn’t accept any more passengers and to close the station. He tells her that “night riders” have come to town and the situation has become very dangerous. Hidden in his wagon on the way to town, he stops and shows her “Freedom Road,” ironically named because it is lined by trees from which hang numerous Black bodies that have been lynched.
At his home in town, Martin introduces Cora to his wife Ethel, who is not happy to see the girl, but takes her to the attic to a small hiding space and tells her to be quiet. A hole in the hiding place looks out on the town square and Cora takes in the idyllic activity of this new place.
The town is preparing for the Friday Festival, and at first Cora enjoys the band performances, although she is disturbed to realize that everyone in the town square is white. However, things quickly turn dark. The second act is a “coon show,” where white men in Blackface, “burnt cork” rubbed into their skin, act in very stupid and silly ways to amuse the crowd. After that, another man in Blackface tells a story of a slave who runs away to the north, only to discover his boss is crueler than his plantation owner, so he tries to get back on the plantation. Finally, a young man joining the “night riders” is introduced and then a badly beaten Black runaway girl that he captured is brought on stage. She is led to a platform under an oak tree and before an enthusiastic crowd she is hanged. Cora moves to the far corner of her nook to sleep, realizing the horror of the town.
Cora lives like a prisoner in Martin and Ethel Wells’ attic. Martin Wells brings her food at night and tells her what has happened in North Carolina. Fearing uprisings by Blacks who outnumbered whites, the white leaders of the state decided to get rid of the Black population, free and slave, and replace them with cheap white labor escaping poverty in Ireland and Europe. They began by buying up slaves and selling them south to Louisiana and Florida and elsewhere. They chased out free Blacks and sent patrols and night riders to murder those who wouldn’t leave. They enforce the system with hideous lies of the threat posed by Blacks, and by regular Friday Festivals where captured runaways and others are lynched. They also kill whites who are caught hiding Black people, and that is why Ethel and Martin are terrified. During the day, Cora has to be completely silent because the Wells’ Irish maid Fiona works downstairs while they are at work. For months Cora lives this way, also continuing her education by reading old almanacs, newspapers, and a Bible in the attic, watching the park, and visiting with Martin who brings her food each night.
In June, there are three bad omens about Cora’s safety. First, she accidentally tips over the chamber pot and the maid Fiona hears it but gets distracted. Second, a group of patrollers looking for Black people search the house, coming within inches of Cora’s nook in the attic. Finally, a local couple is hung for hiding two black boys in their barn. Martin and Ethel are scared, and Martin tells her how he became part of the underground railroad, taking over for his father who built the station at the mine. He had never wanted the position and had not known of his father’s involvement.
Cora gets very sick. Martin dismisses Fiona for a week, telling her they need to quarantine because he has “Venezuelan pox.” Ethel takes good care of Cora in the guest bedroom and also talks to her about Christianity. They discuss the contradictory messages about slavery in the Bible. That Friday night, Cora is feeling better and they decide she will move back to the attic the next morning. However, as the Friday Festival is beginning, a group of patrollers, tipped off by Fiona, barge into the house and drag Cora out to the porch. With them is Ridgeway, the slave catcher, who takes Cora into his possession, chaining her to a wagon driven by a young Black boy and accompanied by the tall white man wearing a necklace of human ears. Fiona gets reward money, and Ethel and Martin Wells are hanged.
This short section tells the early story of Ethel Delany Wells. As a child, Ethel dreamed of being a Christian missionary in Africa. Her family owned a slave, Felice, and Ethel played with Felice’s daughter Jasmine until her father forbade it. Felice and Jasmine lived in the attic, and Felice kept house for the Delany family until she died, then Jasmine took over. Ethel’s father went to Jasmine’s room regularly at night and raped her. Ethel’s mother arranged for Jasmine to be sold and replaced by an old woman. Ethel became a teacher and eventually met and married Martin. They had a good life in Virginia, but then moved to North Carolina to settle Martin’s father Donald’s affairs. When Martin took over Donald’s role in the underground railroad, they were stuck. Ethel was very upset about taking in the runaway slaves, which threatened her life. However, when Cora got sick, she softened, feeling that this was her time to realize her childhood fantasy of ministering to an African.
Shackled and chained to Ridgeway’s wagon, Cora is brought west through Tennessee. The first days of their journey, they travel through a landscape ravaged by fires that accidentally set by the white settlers. They encounter desperate settlers at burned-out towns. Ridgeway points out that the road was made by the Cherokee nation driven out of the state, the famous Trail of Tears and Death. Ridgeway travels with the frightening Boseman, the man wearing the necklace of ears, which he took from an Indian named Strong, a former assistant to Ridgeway. The wagon is driven by a young black boy named Homer whom Ridgeway bought for five dollars then set free the next day. Homer never left, however, thinking he had no future as a black boy alone, and at night he chains himself to the wagon to sleep. He knows how to write and keeps a diary of expenses and events along the journey. Cora is confused about why they are going west, and Ridgeway explains they have to pick up another runaway slave in Missouri before heading south to Georgia.
A few days into the journey, Ridgeway tells Cora what happened to Lovey when she was returned to the Randall plantation. She was hung with a metal post driven through her, and two similar gallows were set up for Cora and Caesar’s return. Cora collapses in grief. They pick up a runaway named Jasper, who sits on the bench and constantly sings hymns. Boseman regularly punishes Jasper, but he keeps singing, until one day Ridgeway climbs into the wagon and shoots Jasper in the face.
Once beyond the reach of the fire, the wagon can’t go through towns because of signs warnings of a yellow fever outbreak. All of Tennessee seems like a wasteland. Finally, they reach a large, active town. On their way in, a black man with glasses nods to Cora. Homer buys Cora a blue dress and ill-fitting wooden shoes, and Ridgeway takes her to dinner, where he tells her Caesar was killed by a mob in South Carolina. Ridgeway explains to Cora his understanding of his place, and hers, in the American story of Manifest Destiny, the story of white Americans laying claim to the country, pushing off everyone else, and maintaining power. After dinner, they move the wagon to a spot beyond the town, hoping to stay ahead of the yellow fever outbreak.
During the night, Boseman grabs Cora to rape her. She pretends to agree, hoping he will take off all her shackles and she can run away. Ridgeway intervenes, knocking Boseman’s tooth out. Boseman is worried Ridgeway will kill him. Then three Black men, led by the man with glasses, armed with guns and a knife, intervene. One shoots Boseman in the stomach, one runs after Homer, and the man with glasses fights with Ridgeway, almost losing until Cora throws herself on Ridgeway’s back and half-strangles him with the chains binding her arms. The Black men invite Cora to join them. Homer escapes. They shackle Ridgeway to the wagon, Cora kicks him in the face three times, and they depart.
This brief section tells the story of Caesar leading up to the escape from the Randall plantation. As someone who expected freedom and lived more or less as a free man in Virginia, he cannot abide life on the plantation. Caesar sees something in Cora, her strength and instincts and also her ability to care for others like Lovey and Chester. Caesar also sees that she is both strong and adaptable, a survivor, and that she cares about the things she possesses like her garden plot. Caesar comes to understand that he can only escape with Cora and works to get her to join him.
After her rescue, Cora travels to another stop on the underground railroad and reaches Valentine farm in Indiana, a haven for free Blacks, runaway slaves, and members of the Black abolitionist movement. The farm belongs to John Valentine, a light-skinned black man who sometimes passes for white, and his wife Gloria. Cora attends school where, despite her attempts to improve her education through reading in the Wells’ attic, she realizes she has much to learn. Cora lives with another runaway slave, Sybil, and Sybil’s daughter, Molly. Cora asks everyone she meets if they know anything about her mother, Mabel.
On Saturday nights, the residents of Valentine farm have a barbeque hog feast followed by entertainment like speakers, poets, and musicians. One Saturday is hosted by Gloria Valentine, who acknowledges Mingo, a resident who is making a controversial proposal about the future of the farm. Because the farm has grown in reputation and in number, Mingo is worried that white settlers will fear a Black rebellion and attack the farm. He wants to move out people like Cora, runaways and other marginal Blacks, forcing them west or north to Canada. After the meeting, when dancing begins, Cora goes home where she finds Royal, the man with glasses who saved her from Ridgeway in Tennessee and who is a conductor on the underground railroad. Cora has developed feelings for Royal, and they share a tender moment.
This section covers Cora’s arrival and early days on the Valentine farm. The weekly Saturday night entertainment often includes a speech by Elijah Lander, a free Black man who has a college education and travels the country speaking on abolition topics and reading his “Declaration of the Rights of the American Negro.” Hearing him makes Cora nervous that she will be cast out of the farm. Royal suggests they take a buggy ride to see more of Indiana. The outing ends at a decaying house, beneath which is an abandoned and minimal station of the underground railroad. The tunnel is too narrow for a train and contains only a handcar. No one knows where it leads and it doesn’t seem to connect to any other stations. The sight of it troubles Cora deeply.
The station here is unlike the well-run station in Tennessee where she caught the train to Valentine farm. That station had white tiles and while they waited, Royal and Cora and the other two men who rescued her, Red and Justin, drank wine at a table covered by a white tablecloth. Justin is a runaway slave who Royal and Red were sent to rescue. When Royal saw Cora in town in Tennessee, they decided to rescue her as well. The train that arrives is a real passenger train, clean and comfortable. Royal explains that the Valentine farm can just be a stop on the way north. Justin executes his plan to go to Canada, where he has relatives. Cora, however, is tired of running, and decides to stay on Valentine farm. Although Indiana is now a free state, there are still dangers from white people. Cora understands the risks, but desperately wants to settle down.
Sam, the station master from South Carolina, shows up on Valentine farm. After the night Caesar was killed and his house was burned down, Sam fled north and kept working for the underground railroad. Sam tells Cora that Terrance Randall is dead and no one is looking for her anymore. Ridgeway and Homer are no longer taken seriously after they were outsmarted by Royal in Tennessee. Sam stays three days and visits, participating in a corn shucking contest, before continuing west to California, where he hopes to work as a bartender.
Cora spends a lot of time reading in the Valentine farm library. One night John Valentine, the owner of the farm, arrives and visits with her. She says she is afraid Mingo’s plan to reduce the population on the farm means she will have to leave. Valentine and Cora have both witnessed growing hostility from whites in town. Valentine is thinking of selling the farm and moving everyone west to Oklahoma to begin again. Cora doesn’t want to start over, but it seems like it might be inevitable.
The night before the violent ambush on Valentine farm by a gang of white men, Royal brings Cora a brand new farmers’ almanac for the next year. She tells him her life story, and he ends up spending the night. The next evening, everyone excitedly gathers to hear a debate about the future of the farm between Mingo and Lander. The crowd includes Blacks who own nearby farms.
Mingo argues that the farm is too large and angering whites, and that only those who are not too damaged by the experience of slavery, who can fit into white society, should be allowed to stay. Lander argues that they “rise and fall as one,” united by the color of their skin, and whatever they do they must do together. No sooner does Lander finish speaking than he is shot in the chest by an intruding white mob. Royal runs to him and is shot in the back. The white mob keeps shooting as people try to escape the slaughter. Cora holds Royal in her lap for a short time, then escapes the building. The whole farm is on fire and absorbed by violence. Cora is grabbed by Ridgeway and then Homer appears, saying he heard Royal tell her to go to the underground railway station.
This short section recounts what happened to Cora’s mother, Mabel. She runs away one night because she can’t face the ghosts of those killed, sold, or who committed suicide on the Randall plantation anymore. Once in the swamp, she lies down against an island bank and eats a turnip from her garden. Here, she has a brief but profound experience of freedom. Then she decides to go back, holding onto that experience but recognizing her obligation to care for Cora. She barely starts back, however, when she is bitten by a cottonmouth snake. The poison overcomes her and she disappears into the swamp.
As the Valentine farm is destroyed, Cora is taken by Ridgeway and Homer, though she finally gets her revenge. Cora takes Ridgeway to the underground railroad station below the abandoned house, but as she is descending, she embraces him as if to dance and pulls him down the steps with her. Cora is injured, but Ridgeway is mortally wounded with a deep head wound and two badly broken legs. Cora gets on a handcar and starts pumping away from the station, while Homer tends to the dying Ridgeway, who is still talking about his mythical ideas about America. Cora pumps her way for miles, then walks until she emerges from the tunnel. She walks to a trail where she encounters three covered wagons. Driving the third is an older Black man who says his name is Ollie. Ollie feeds her and invites her to join him, first to St. Louis and then on to California. Cora joins Ollie and the wagon train, wondering about Ollie’s story.