A Lonely Young Man
It was certain to be another sweltering day in the great state of Mississippi.
Mid-morning, and already the cicadas had begun drumming their tymbals with anticipation of attracting a mate before summer was over, their shrill calls filling the oaks and willows and poplars of Rose Hill plantation with reminders that the hottest, most oppressive days of summer were here once again. Another cloudless sky promised temperatures above one hundred degrees for the eleventh day in a row, but it was a blessing for the cotton now that bolting season was quickly approaching.
The expansive cotton fields of Rose Hill plantation sprawled for miles in some of the best bottom land of Claiborne County, peppered with slaves, young and old, painstakingly working their way down the endless rows of cotton with well-worn hoes, some working a little faster than those not quite as skilled or the elderly or those unaware of the watchful eyes of the overseer, Mike Ravan. For these, the reward was always the same - the lash, given without hesitation and numerous times throughout the long day.
Collin Fitzergald leaned up against one of the many slave cabins after inspecting the quarters with Jeb, his main carpenter of the past twelve years. He pulled at his shirt collar; the heat, unforgiving humidity and burden of running his inherited eighteen-hundred-acre plantation was getting the best of him.
“God damn it all, Jeb. Now we got to build more cabins, and that’s all that’s to it,” he grumbled. “We’re busting out at the seams again with all these field hands, but we need every single one of ‘em what with harvest coming up. I don’t see any other way around it.”
“How many field hands you got now, Massa Collin?” Jeb asked, knowing his master found a sense of pride in the number of slaves he owned and the size of his plantation.
Collin thought for a moment as he pulled at the edge of his graying moustahce. “Well, let me see now. The last I counted, I got about one hundred and fifty over thirteen years old, forty three under, and a dozen or so still in the oven,” he said with a smile, “and I plan on cullin’ a few of the weaker ones out and buying another dozen real soon up in Port Gibson.”
“That’s quite a few, Massa Collin,” Jeb said. “Twenty five cabins divided in two with a wall down the middle just don’t seem to be enough anymore, does it Massa Collin?”
“Hell no! We got slaves sleepin’ outside, and I can’t afford no sick slaves, not at cotton pickin’ time. I’d say we need at least six more built, and that means plenty of work for you and Luge.”
Jeb got that worried look on his face, the one that a lashing was sure to come out of this at some point if the work wasn’t done just right and on time.
“We sure can do that, Massa Collin,” he said timidly, “as long as we can get into the woods and cut us some trees down. We been workin’ on the hog shed, but we can do this, too. We’ll need some help, though, Massa Collin. Me and Luge can’t do all this by ourselves and keep all the other buildings fixed up like they should be,”
Collin frowned. “Damn it all, Jeb. I can’t spare any more help right now, and you know it. We need all the hands we got in the fields right now what with harvest comin’ up. Hell, even the young ‘uns are out there. I tell you what, though. You and Luge go on out to the north woods and mark the trees you want cut, good strong oak and poplar, then in the evenings after field work is done you can take them two new bucks I bought, Jim and Sam, and a team of horses and cut the trees down and haul ‘em in.”
“But Massa Collin, them bucks don’t get in ‘til well after sundown, and they’s all worked out by then. They’s too new, Massa Collin. They ain’t work broke yet. They can’t go cut trees down after workin’ all day in the fields, can they Massa Collin?”
Collin unbuttoned the top of his white shirt. Jeb had a way of getting on his nerves. “Well, maybe they need to be broke a little better, Jeb, and good hard work is one way of doing it along with some regular thrashings, maybe some time spent in the hole, too? My daddy, the Colonel, always used to say that a tired and worn out Negro is a good Negro."
The last thing Jeb wanted was to cause any more whippings or see anyone put in the hole than what was already a daily occurrence at Rose Hill, and he knew better than to argue for too long with Collin, learning a long time ago from the bite of the lash that his master didn’t take kindly to being contrary.
“Now that I thinks about it, we can do it, Massa Collin,” he assured him. “We shorely can do it for you. Ain’t no need for no whoopins’ or nobody in the hole. Me and Luge’ll head out to the woods right away this afternoon. We sure will.”
“Good. That’s what I like to hear. Then get at it right away,” Collin said as he started to head back towards the big house on the well-worn dirt lane with Jeb trailing close behind him.
“How long we gots to get it done, Massa Collin?” he asked, hoping he’d have plenty of time.
“We only got a few weeks until cotton harvest, Jeb. It better get done by then, or we’ll take that new paddling board you made with all them holes in it and have Ravan give you and Luge and them two young bucks a damn good bare-ass paddling for all to see.”
Jeb followed along and tried to keep up with Collin’s long stride. “No, Massa Collin. None of us don’t need no paddlin’. We’ll get it done. We sure will. You just leave it up to old Jeb and Luge,” he assured him, remembering just last week when their overseer, Mike Ravan, paddled Clayton, one of the stable boys, until his bottom turned to a bloody gel. Thankfully, the paddle broke, but Ravan wasn’t spent of his anger until he poured salt on and rubbed it in. Jeb had to cover his ears to muffle the screams.
“Yes, sir, Massa Collin. We’ll get it done long before cotton pickin’ time. We surely will,” he said as Collin left him behind, not bothering to turn back and look at him.
“You just do what you got to do, but get them cabins built, or you’ll be the first one to get that paddle,” he said with a smirk as he strode up the lane towards the big house standing white and regal against the tall oaks that surrounded it.
“Yes, Massa. Yes, Massa,” Jeb obediently responded, then turned and ran back down the path to his wood shop in the quarters. “Lordy, Lordy,” he mumbled. “How am I ever goin’ to get all this work done?”
He walked into the familiar smells of saw dust and grease and the dirt floor. “Luge, we got work to do,” he called.
Collin walked past the vegetable gardens without even acknowledging the several elderly slaves bent over picking weeds out of the rows of beets and onions and tomatoes and summer peas. None looked up except for old Tandey. He could tell by his master’s walk that he wasn’t in any kind of mood to be bothered, but he greeted him just the same, “Mornin’ Massa Collin.”
Collin didn’t respond. “God damn lazy darkies,” he mumbled under his breath feeling the burden of Rose Hill getting heavier and heavier by the day. “They’re going to be the death of me yet.”
He walked up the wide front steps of the big house his grandfather, Colonel Beauregard, built. Bursting through the heavy front doors and slamming them shut, he marched through the marbled foyer not even bothering to take off his calf-high leather boots.
“Catherine, where’s that son of yours?” he yelled.
Catherine, sitting in the parlor in her mint green taffeta dress and multiple underskirts that were again fitting too snugly, snapped back at him. “Collin Fitzgerald, I am not going to talk through walls with a man yelling at me from another room. You may come into the parlor like a gentleman if you wish to address me.”
The day was already warming to a good ninety degrees, and Catherine’s corpulent figure didn’t help matters. “Sweating all day long like a field Negro,” she’d complain over and over again to anyone that would listen, and no amount of fanning from Meriday seemed to help.
“Faster, Meriday. You are half fallin’ asleep on the job again. Do I need to have Mr. Ravan give you a thrashing one more time?” she threatened.
Meriday wiped the sweat from her young brow and fanned faster with one of the big white ostrich feathers Ms. Catherine brought with her from her parents’ home down in New Orleans. It was at least twice Meriday’s size at only eleven years old.
“No ma’am. I don’t need no thrashin’,” she quickly answered, the burn of the lash still fresh on her back from the last time Ravan took it to her a half a dozen times.
Collin’s boots made his presence known as he walked into the parlor. “Those damn slave quarters are going to need some attention,” he told Catherine without even giving her a hello or a kiss on her cheek.
He took a seat in his grandfather’s worn leather chair, draping himself into it with a sigh. “They’re getting too damn crowded again,” he said, “and a few of ‘em are about to fall down. We got so damn many Negroes now, we’re running out of room, and I still need at least a dozen more to replace the ones that are gettin’ all worked out.”
Catherine set her embroidery down in her lap. “Collin, first of all, I have asked you repeatedly not to swear in my presence. That kind of rough talk might be suited for out in the fields or down in the slave quarters, but not up here in the big house.”
Collin absentmindedly looked out the large front window onto the expansive green lawn where half a dozen of the older slaves and a few of the younger ones worked trimming hedges, weeding Ms. Catherine’s flower gardens, and above all doing their best to look busy.
“Yes, dear,” he replied absentmindedly.
Meriday continued fanning at a quicker pace, anxious to hear what would transpire. She enjoyed her masters’ non-stop spats and bickering with one another.
“Collin, those slave quarters are your concern, not mine. I told you that when you brought me up from New Orleans to this forsaken place. The last thing I care to think about are those nasty lice-infested quarters. They’re disgusting, worse than the barn. Why don’t you just let some of the Negros sleep in the barn or out in the woods like Colonel Beauregard used to do? That would solve your problem, and you and I could talk about something a little more pleasant, like our son,” she said, watching to see his reaction.
Collin liked to hear Catherine “disgusted.” Somehow it pleased him that she still thought she was living with her parents in their fancy French Colonial mansion down in New Orleans rather than out on a working plantation. His “jewel from the city” is how he described her, like a prize or feather in his hat.
“I’ll tell you why I don’t let them sleep in the woods, Catherine. Times have changed from when the Colonel ran this place. You can’t trust a one of them darkies these days, what with the damn Abolitionists stirring things up around the country and rumblings of freedom for all the slaves coming right straight from Washington, D.C. You know the darkies hear it all through their damn grapevine, and every one of them is just itching for freedom. I can see it in their eyes and the way they look at me. God damn bleeding-heart Northerners thinking they’re so much better than us. Let them try running a plantation of this size in this heat, and they’ll see it ain’t no walk in the flower garden. Why, this country would crumble to its knees if it weren’t for all the revenue coming in from our cotton.”
Catherine picked up the handkerchief she was working on and continued embroidering, although her stitching was getting a little tighter as it always did when Collin burdened her with his plantation problems and political viewpoints.
“Well, Collin,” she took on her comforting tone, “all the southern states will secede one of these days, then we won’t have to worry about what goes on up in Washington, now will we? I’m sure you’ll figure something out in the meantime. You always do, dear,” she said, giving Meriday a foul look to speed it up with the ostrich feather.
“Hell, the South is too damn scared to secede!” Collin scowled. “I say we need stronger representatives up in Washington to protect our investment in these Negros. Damn it, the whole North and all of Europe wouldn’t have a stitch of clothes to wear if it weren’t for us raising all their God damn cotton.”
“Collin, I have told you and I have told you about swearing in my presence, now haven’t I?”
Ignoring her, he gazed out the window at the yard Negroes working in the hot morning sun, the sweat glistening off their dark skin. He liked the front lawn to look just so, like a park in the city, and the yard crew knew they better keep it that way.
“Speaking of running a plantation, Catherine, where is that son of ours? Why, he’s seventeen years old now. If he’s to be my heir, he’s got to be up here seein’ how things are run and learnin’ how to manage a couple hundred darkies. He can’t do that by wandering in the woods or hunting in some lost creek somewhere. I swear he’s a loner and that ain’t good for the future owner of Rose Hill.”
Meriday fanned a little faster, sensing the tension about to rise as it always did when Beau became the subject.
Catherine placed her embroidery down on her lap, which Meriday knew meant serious business. “Collin, I don’t know how many times I have told you, that boy is not a loner. He’s just plain lonely, stuck out here in the middle of these cotton fields and swamps with nothing but snakes crawlin’ around and darkies to look at and talk with. Why, we’re five miles from the next plantation and a million miles from any kind of civilization. He doesn’t have any friends, and you know how he feels about slaves.”
Meriday knew where this conversation was headed. She’d heard it before.
Collin sat up in his chair. “I don’t care how he feels about the slaves. He doesn’t have a choice in the matter. He needs to understand that we are here to manage the darkies, direct their labor, watch over them if you will. And those slaves are our bread and butter whether he likes it or not. Why, if it weren’t for us, they’d be right back in some dark forest in Africa. And, what do you mean, you knew you were coming out here when we got married. I asked you if you were willing to leave New Orleans behind, and what did you say to me? You said you’d just love to live on one of these big old southern plantations. Well, here you are, and it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, now is it?”
“Collin, we are talkin’ about our son, not New Orleans and how you cajoled me away from my parents. If you recall, you told me there would be plenty of grand affairs and parties, but there’s very little of that going on anymore what with rumblings of war coming. All I hear about is secession and slave uprisings, and Washington D.C., but that’s a whole discussion for another time. Now, I think Beau is lonely, Collin. Meriday, faster now!” she snapped as she quickly turned toward the young girl. “I swear you are about on my last nerve and heading for another thrashing by Mr. Ravan, and this time with the big whip.”
“Yes, Ms. Catherine. I’m sorry Ms. Catherine,” she replied.
Collin kept an eye on Meriday, noting her fine light-colored skin, good muscle tone even at eleven years old, strong arms, too, making a mental note to himself that she’d make some good breedin’ stock in a few years, maybe let one of Holton Greene’s boys break her in and produce a fine mulatto to bring in a hefty sum at the auction.
“Collin! I am talking to you,” Catherine scolded.
“Ahem, well, it isn’t my fault he’s our only son, Catherine,” he volleyed back at her, knowing this was her most sensitive spot.
Catherine quickly pulled the lace handkerchief out of her sleeve. “Now that comment was uncalled for, Collin Fitzgerald. You know very well I almost died from birthing that boy,” she said as she dabbed at the corners of her eyes. “We can’t chance that ever happening again, Collin. Ever!” she said with emphasis. “My constitution is just too delicate for birthing baby after baby like one of your slave mammies do. And let’s not forget, I gave you a fine daughter as well in Cordelia.”
“Yes, Catherine, I know,” he grumbled as he looked out the window. “That’s why we have separate bedrooms because of your fragile constitution.”
Meriday’s eyes grew wide. The ostrich feather froze in mid-air as she completely forgot about fanning Ms. Catherine.
“Now don’t you start bringing that up again, Collin Fitzgerald. You’re acting like one of those young bucks down in the quarters, all hot and looking for even a wooden fence post to breed. You’re a sophisticated man! You ain’t governed by the animal desires like all the slaves we own.”
Collin looked again at Meriday and wondered about Catherine’s referral to his animal desires. She has no idea, he thought.
“You best get fanning, Meriday,” he said. “Now enough of that, Catherine. What about Beau? I need him helping me. I can’t do all this by myself. Why, when I was his age, my daddy had me overseeing half the slaves on this here plantation. I was out in the fields with them every day. I can’t leave all this up to Mike Ravan.”
Catherine sighed. She was having such a nice morning, and now Collin had simply ruined it. It was time to change the subject.
“Well, Collin, that problem aside, I’ve been thinking,” she answered, leaning forward in the red velvet sofa her parents gave her for a wedding present. “I agree with you that Beau needs more responsibility, but we need to start a little at a time. Why don’t you give him a slave of his own, his own personal servant like Meriday here, maybe one of those young boys down at the quarters, one he can have and call his own? Just not one too dark or musky smelling,” she added. “Not for up here at the big house?”
Collin looked out the window and watched Old Joe as he pruned the azaleas. It wasn’t too often Catherine came up with a good idea, but he liked this one - a slave for Beau to call his own, manage, and discipline! Now why hadn’t he thought of that, he wondered. Pulling on the edge of his moustache, he relaxed his six-foot frame further down into the leather chair. It might be good for Beau to get used to owning a slave, give him some responsibility, teach him how to handle a darkie, direct their behavior, give ‘em a whoopin’ every now and then, get hardened up some for when he had to run the whole plantation and have some real responsibility on his shoulders. There had to be a young buck down at the quarters about Beau’s age he could spare.
“Well, Catherine, that may not be such a bad idea now,” he said as he lit up one of his Cuban cigars. Taking a long draw, he blew out a trail of smoke. “Now that you mention it, I was just down at the quarters looking at the cabins. That son of Pearl and Apollo might do. Ben’s his name, the one with the bum right leg. He’s almost the same age as Beau, and ain’t much good for the fields since the accident, or anything else for that matter except splitting and hauling firewood and cleaning cabins, doing odd jobs here and there. I was planning on selling him off at the auction up in Port Gibson with the next batch, maybe get some of my investment back, even if it isn’t going to be much, crippled as he is. I may as well give him to Beau. Maybe he can even breed some wench up here at the big house,” he said, giving Meriday a smile, but she looked down at the floor out of flattered embarrassment.
Catherine looked at him with consternation. “Collin, I don’t care what his name is, and you know I don’t tolerate any talk in this house about breeding, be it the Negroes or any of the other animals on this plantation for that matter. Whichever boy you choose to bring up here to the big house, just make sure he’s not too dark, and I want him all scrubbed up nice and clean. Oh, and debugged and de-liced, too. We don’t want any critters or bed bugs coming with him from down in those nasty shacks. I want him smelling proper, too, and dressed right, not just a raggy pair of homemade trousers that don’t cover anything and no shoes or shirt like they wear out in the fields.”
Collin rang the small bell on the walnut table next to his chair for Washington, the main house boy at Rose Hill for the past twenty-seven years.
Always within calling distance of Collin when he was up in the big house, Washington heard the entire conversation and immediately came through the side door into the parlor.
“Yes, Massa Collin?” he asked straight off.
“Washington,” Collin said without taking his gaze off Meriday, “we’ve decided to give Beau a slave of his own as I’m sure you’ve overheard from behind the dining room door. That young buck, Ben, son of Apollo and Pearl, might be just what he needs, give him some responsibility, something to take care of more than just that horse of his.”
“Yes Massa. Ben’s a right fine young buck, strong, good manners, always willin’ to help and never sasses back, just has that bad leg that’s all,” Washington said, happy that perhaps Ben could be saved from the auction block.
“Go on down to the quarters and find him. Last I saw he was cleaning out the cabins and trying to stay unnoticed. Tell him I want him up here at the big house. Make sure he’s all scrubbed up good and clean, give him a good de-lice’n and de-buggin’, too. God only knows what kind of critters he’s got crawling in that nappy hair of his. And teach him a few house manners while you’re at it.”
The word “crawling” got under Catherine’s skin. “And cut his hair good and short, Washington,” she told him.
“Yes, Ms. Catherine. I surely will. I’ll cut it good and short.” Washington bowed as low as he could for being a middle-aged man like he’d been taught by the Colonel.
“Oh, and Washington,” Collin remembered, “have him up here in time for our luncheon this afternoon. I’m sure Beau will be back from his wanderings by then.”
At forty-seven years old, Washington still held his position at the big house, but not without several dozen lashings through the years, however. He learned a long time ago not to be “hesitating” or “questioning” when he was given an order, and he had plenty of old scars on his backside from the Colonel’s whipping man to show for that lesson!
“Lord have mercy,” he mumbled as he rushed through the dining room and pushed through the swinging door into the sunlit kitchen.
“Lucretia,” he yelled to his sister with urgency in his voice, “get me some of the lice’n powder ready, quick!”
“Don’t you be bossin’ me around, President Washington,” she snapped and continued kneading the sour dough bread at the large work table. “I’s your elder, and don’t you forget it.”
“Lucretia, if you weren’t my sister, I’d have Massa Collin sell you down the river. Now where is that lice’n powder?” he asked.
“Well I is your sister, and if’n I go down the river, you’s goin’ down with me. What you need lice’n powder for now? It ain’t lice’n time for another month.”
“Don’t fuss with me, Lucretia. Massa Collin wants to bring Pearl and Apollo’s young Ben up here to the big house for Massa Beau,” he said excitedly. “Lord have mercy, my prayers have been answered. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for helping young Ben.”
Lucretia stopped and looked at her brother. “What are you talking about? Have you gone crazy? That boy has a bum right leg. Massa Collin’s goin’ to sell him at the auction.”
Washington stood across the table from her. “I know, but the Lord has answered my prayers, Cretia. Pearl and Apollo pleaded with me to help save their boy from the auction block, and the good Lord has done it for me. He done it for me, Lucretia!”
“Hallelujah,” she said as she rubbed her floured hands on her apron. “Well, don’t get yourself all worked up into another spell now,” she scolded him, “or they’ll be sellin’ you on the auction block, too, if you ain’t careful. Oh, thank the good Lord,” she said and clapped her floured hands together. “That poor child, damaged like he is from that wagon accident. I still say Mr. Ravan ran him over out of spite for Apollo.”
“Don’t let anyone hear you sayin’ that, Cretia,” Washington said quietly, “or you’ll be paying with your hide.”
“Hide or no hide, that evil man ran over Ben on purpose,” she said, groaning as she got down on her knees to look under the cupboard for the lice’n powder. “He’s got it in for Apollo, and he’ll take it out on Ben or Pearl, it don’t matter to him. He’s jealous, I say, ‘cause he can’t break him. Now, where on earth is that lice’n powder?” she asked as she crawled further into the cupboard. Here it is,” she said and backed out. “Now help me up off this floor. Can’t you see I go the rheumatiz today? What on earth are they going to do with Ben up here at the big house?”
Washington took her by the arm and helped her up. “You gettin’ heavier all time, Cretia,” he said.
She stared into his eyes with a scolding look, but didn’t respond.
“Ahem,” he went on, “Massa Collin and Miss Catherine want to give a slave to Massa Beau to own and take care of.”
Lucretia shook her head and mumbled, “Lord have mercy. Like a pet dog. Massa Beau ain’t going to go for it I tell you.”
“Better a pet dog in the big house than a work horse out in the fields, Cretia,” Washington told her, proud of his words of wisdom. “I gots to hurry now. They want Ben all scrubbed up and cleaned and dressed real nice in time for their mid-afternoon luncheon. Oh, and where’s Massa Beau? They’s lookin’ for him.”
“Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm,” she said and shook her head. “That poor boy is like a lost child and Massa Collin and Ms. Catherine don’t even see it. I expect he’s down at the creek where he spends most of his time on these hot summer days. He asked me not to tell anyone, though. I expect you’ll be needin’ some hair cuttin’ shears for Ben, too. Now quit your dilly dallyin’ and git,” she told him as she handed him the sheers. “Afternoon luncheon is coming on soon, and I’m going to need some help. I’ll be out in the summer kitchen if you need me. Oh, and take a pair of trousers and a clean shirt off the line for Ben. Alexander won’t mind, and they should fit Ben just fine until we can get some new ones made for him.”
Washington took the shears and lice’n powder and rushed out the screen door to the clothes line. The sweat was already beading on his forehead and upper lip, even though it was only mid-morning. A nervous excitement overtook him as he took the freshly washed black trousers and white shirt off the line.
“Hallelujah,” he repeated as he ran past the large willow tree dripping with Spanish moss. Ben was a good boy, too good to be sold at the auction, and the Lord had saved him. There were two ways to lighten the crippling burden of slavery, he knew, and one was working in the big house. The other was death!
Old Joe stopped pruning Ms. Catherine’s azaleas and watched Washington run down to the quarters with Alexander’s clothes. Now what is he up to in such a hurry, he wondered and decided to head over to the summer kitchen in the back of the house to see Lucretia. She knew more than anyone what all went on at Rose Hill, plus, she was always willing to slip him a cup of lemonade on a hot afternoon.
The sun shone brightly in yet another cloudless sky as it slowly and steadily climbed above Rose Hill plantation. Washington thought about Pearl and Apollo and all the other field hands out in the cotton fields, bent over, hoeing, hoeing and more hoeing down the long rows for no pay except for a small amount of corn and pork fat each week and one set of clothes each year for their daily labor. He ran past the stables and the wooden cages with metal bars built for “unruly” slaves and the six-foot-deep “hole” for those needing to be broke, as he did several times each day.
“Lord help us all,” he prayed
Buck Creek flowed lazily this time of year along the far western border of Rose Hill plantation, meandering its way in no particular hurry through the thick woods before it emptied into the expansive swamp that lay between Fitzgerald land and the mighty Mississippi. A natural barrier, it crawled with water moccasins, copperheads, alligators and all sorts of foul creatures, “Like a perfect fence,” the Colonel used to say. There were some, however, that knew their way through it!
Beau took his shirt off and sat on the grassy bank. It was his place, a place where he could get away from it all, the cruelty of slavery and the slaves’ fear with no hope for tomorrow, away from his parents and neighboring plantation owners who looked at the slaves as little more than farm animals, away from Mike Ravan and the endless crack of his bull whip across the backs of any Negro he chose for punishment, and their screams, their cries for mercy when there was no mercy.
He liked it out there all by himself, just him and the birds and the squirrels and the quiet, a place where he could dream about the future and what he wanted out of life but probably couldn’t have. He tossed a rock into the water and wished he could be that old creek, silently, quietly slipping away to the Mississippi river without anyone noticing, leaving it all behind. He skipped another flat stone across the water. That same repeating worry troubled him once again about his life as future owner of Rose Hill, one of the largest and wealthiest plantations in Mississippi. He’d be rich, wealthy, owning over two hundred slaves, but that was the last thing he wanted.
He frowned as he threw another rock down the length of the creek, a little harder and farther this time. I can’t go off to college, he thought, can’t move up north, can’t do anything except sit on this old plantation for the rest of my life and work the slaves until they die or sell them on the auction block up in Port Gibson, then buy more to replenish the stock. It wasn’t right to own other people, he told himself again, to treat them so badly, degrade them, humiliate them, whip them without mercy. He heard it every evening after the field hands came back to the quarters and those that didn’t work hard enough line up like cattle by the whipping tree for their lashings. He saw the sadistic pleasure it gave Mike Ravan, to crack the whip over and over again across their dark skin glistening with sweat just to hear their shrieks of pain and see the blood flow down their naked backside and legs.
It disgusted him! The whole thing disgusted him. One way or another, I’m getting out of here, he told himself as he threw another stone into the creek. I don’t care how I do it, but I’m getting out of here!
He listened to the cicadas filling the air with their mating song knowing he needed to get back to the house. Lunch with his parents was always a trying event, but reluctantly he put his shirt back on and turned to follow the path back through the woods to the meadow and the quarters.
The sun rose high over the great state of Mississippi until the heat and dripping humidity was unbearable; the woods, however, was cool and shaded, quiet except for a few gray squirrels and chipmunks. He kept his eyes on the narrow path just in case he came upon a copperhead or maybe a rattler, but he knew that at this time of day they were most likely sheltered beneath a log or in some hole to escape the heat. He climbed over the split rail fence into the direct sunlight flooding the meadow where the heat hit him like the open door of an oven. The air was heavy and hard to breathe; how anyone could work in this he couldn’t imagine, yet he knew there was no rest for the slave no matter how hot it got.