Eleven-year-old Elijah Freeman is the first freeborn child in Buxton, Canada, a settlement established for former slaves just over the Michigan border in 1849. Elijah can "chunk rocks" with such accuracy that he catches fish by taking aim and hitting them on the head with stones. As Elijah is returning home with...

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Eleven-year-old Elijah Freeman is the first freeborn child in Buxton, Canada, a settlement established for former slaves just over the Michigan border in 1849. Elijah can "chunk rocks" with such accuracy that he catches fish by taking aim and hitting them on the head with stones. As Elijah is returning home with ten fish he has caught, he runs into the Preacher, who convinces him that he should tithe a tenth of his riches to him, as the servant of the Lord. Elijah is confused about the Preacher; he knows he is manipulative, but cannot quite accept that the supposedly holy man is completely hypocritical and self-serving.

Elijah recalls a time when he had flippantly used the word "nigger" in front of a neighbor, Mr. Leroy. Mr. Leroy had immediately slapped him hard and shown him a brand on the skin on his chest, raging about how, when he was a slave, his baby girl was sold away and his wife given to another man for his own. All the time Mr. Leroy and his family had lived in slavery, they had been called "nigger," and he is appalled that Elijah should be so ignorant as to "(keep) they hate alive." Elijah knows that the lesson he learned from Mr. Leroy is the same as one Mr. Travis, his teacher, has tried to teach in class, but it is the experience with Mr. Leroy which impresses upon him the full impact of his thoughtless use of a word that "ain"t never called with nothing but hate."

The carnival comes to town, but the conscientious parents of Buxton, recognizing its unsavory nature, forbid their children to go. The Preacher, however, hoping to exploit Elijah"s rock-chunking talent, convinces him to defy his parents and accompany him to the event, where they see Madame Sabbar, a woman who has an amazing ability with a slingshot. The Preacher arranges a meeting with the carnival owner, introducing Elijah as Ahbo, a rock-chunking boy raised in Africa. As he goes to Madame Sabbar"s tent for a showdown, Elijah meets MaWee, a little black urchin who is shamelessly depicted as a pickaninny, vanquished by the slingshot artist in the show. Elijah demonstrates his skill versus that of Madame Sabbar"s in a contest and beats her handily. The Preacher tries to negotiate a deal whereby he and Elijah will be paid to travel with the carnival, but the owner wants to buy Elijah outright. Uncharacteristically, this blatant attempt at human trafficking offends even the usually unscrupulous Preacher, and he and Elijah make a quick exit from the carnival. The Preacher later returns to the carnival and secures MaWee"s release from bondage at gunpoint.

Newly escaped slaves arrive in Buxton, traumatized by the experiences of their pasts. They are welcomed into the settlement, and the Liberty Bell is rung to celebrate their new found freedom. Elijah, who has never experienced what it means to have been a slave, struggles to understand the emotional scars borne by all who have been victims of the institution.

Elijah picks up the mail for the settlement, bringing back a letter from America for Mrs. Holton. Since Mrs. Holton, like most Buxton adults, is illiterate, Elijah reads the letter aloud to her. Such letters almost always bring bad news, and through this one, Mrs. Holton learns that her husband, John, has been beaten to death by his owners. Later, Ma relates a story from her own childhood. As a slave, she had been sent to Detroit to work, and when she returned home, her mother, upon discovering that Ma had been within a half-mile of freedom but had not taken advantage of the opportunity to escape, had passionately reprimanded her. When Ma was sent again to Detroit, the value of freedom had been indelibly etched into her mind. She knew she would cross the border into Canada the first chance she got, and would never see her mother again.

Mr. Leroy carves a memorial plaque for Mrs. Holton, in memory of her husband John, and in return, Mrs. Holton gives him the money she had been saving to buy her husband"s freedom. Mr. Leroy asks Pa for help in securing his family"s release from slavery, but at this point the Preacher arrives and manipulatively offers to take the money and go down to America to buy Mr. Leroy"s family himself. Pa advises Mr. Leroy against trusting the Preacher, but Mr. Leroy is desperate to have his family with him. He asks Elijah what he thinks about the Preacher, and although Elijah knows the Preacher is deceitful, he remembers that the man saved MaWee. Elijah tells Mr. Leroy that he believes the Preacher can be trusted. The Preacher goes to America with a neighbor, Mr. Highgate, but a few days later, Mr. Highgate, having been shot by the devious man, is brought home by a stranger. Mr. Leroy is frantic, and Elijah is overcome by guilt.

Mr. Leroy resolves to go after the Preacher, and forces Elijah to accompany him. In Michigan, they learn that the Preacher is gambling with white men at a stable where slavers stay. Despite the danger, Mr. Leroy presses on, but is stricken with a heart attack. As he lays dying, Mr. Leroy makes Elijah promise to go on to the stable and get the money, or else kill the Preacher.

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Elijah enters the darkness of the stable and immediately senses there is something terribly wrong. To his horror, he discovers the Preacher, strung up by his hands and beaten to death, and over to the side, four runaway slaves, naked and chained to the wall, with a baby. The sight of the shackled slaves impresses upon Elijah the full atrocity of the institution of slavery in a way that all the lessons of his parents and others never could. Elijah brings the captives water, and the only woman among them, Mrs. Chloe, whose hands have been left unbound so that she can tend the infant, says that the Preacher died just before sunset, having been brutally tortured, and warns Elijah to be quiet, as a slaver who has been assigned to stand guard is lying in a drunken stupor nearby. Elijah tells the runaways that they are only an hour away from the Canadian border, and makes desperate plans to release them and bring them home to freedom, but Mrs. Chloe and the others know escape will be impossible. Elijah, then, does the only thing he can for them, accepting the baby girl from the woman to take back to Buxton, where she, at least, will grow up in freedom.