At length, he came to a bridge spanning the Potomac River. Two Union soldiers watched him approach. "What is your business?" one challenged when he stood before them.
"Nothing," said Sam, surprised. "I am just walking."
"What's your name?"
Sam stiffened. His head came up. "My name is Sam," he said.
"That's all? Sam?"
The soldier — a boy, really, shaggy blonde hair, chin whiskers still wispy — was spoiling for a fight. Sam considered his responses carefully. He thought of saying he was Sam Wilson, after the man who had owned him last, but something in him fumed against the thought. He had a self and it was one he wholly possessed, one that was not tied to a white man who had once considered him his property. Otherwise, what was the purpose of his escape to freedom? What was the purpose of these last four years of slaughter and privation? What was the purpose of the president's murder?
So he looked the white boy quite deliberately in the eye. "Free man," he said. He pronounced the syllables separately, distinctly, stopping between them, making them a statement in themselves. "My name is Sam Freeman."
The boy's eyes widened, then hardened. The next thing Sam knew, he was lying on the wooden planks of the bridge, his hand to his bloodied mouth, his eyes flashing light that was not there. Instinctively, Sam reached behind to push himself back up. He stopped when he saw the pistol leveled at him, the boy's hand so tight on the trigger that in some part of his mind, Sam marveled that he was not already dead.
"You sassin' me, nigger?" From somewhere beyond the pistol that filled his vision, the white boy's voice came to him, high and shaky, as if the boy could not suck in enough breath.
"You asked who I was, sir," Sam said, and was pleased to hear that his voice was quiet and reasonable and did not shake. "You asked my cognomen. You asked my appellation." Big words the boy soldier would not know.
"I asked your name!" the boy thundered and Sam was distantly gratified by this unwitting confirmation of ignorance.
"And I gave it to you," he said. "My name is Sam Freeman." He spoke evenly. He did not separate the syllables this time.
A new voice had entered. Sam risked turning ever so slightly to find the source. His gaze fell upon a dark-skinned Negro who approached cautiously, palms up. It was Ben. He was smiling. His smile was blazing, teeth dazzling white and every last one on display.
The gun swiveled toward him, returned to Sam. "Who are you? What the hell do you want?"
Impossibly, the smile broadened. "You ain't want to shoot ol' Shine, sir. Shine, that's what they calls me. And I was just trying to explain, this boy here ain't meant no harm. No, sir. See, family he used to belong to, they's called the Freemans. But they's a white family, you see? Lives down near N'awlins. He just figure, with the fightin' over, he go down there, see if they got any work for him. 'Cause he miss the old place, you see. Miss his white folks. Plumb sorry he ever run off, that's what he told me."
"Is that true?" the boy soldier demanded of Sam.
It took Sam a moment. "Yes," he finally managed. "Yes, that is right."
Shine clapped him on the back hard enough to jar his bones. "See? There you go. This weren't nothin' more than a little misunderstandin', is all."
The soldier Jakey regarded them dubiously and for a moment, Sam was sure the lie had not worked. Then the second soldier took over and waved them through. "Go on, get out of here."
"Yes, sir," said Shine promptly. "Thank you, sir." And, clasping Sam's neck as if he were a troublesome child, he steered him past the guard post.
They walked in silence for long minutes as the bridge fell further behind them. Finally, Sam spoke. "I want to thank you for what you did."
Ben snorted. "You mean, you couldn't get yourself out of it with your 'proper English' and talkin' like you got marbles in your mouth? No, I expect you couldn't. Like to got yourself killed back there, mister free man." He drew the syllables out scornfully. "How long you been a nigger anyway, mister free man?"
"I have never been that," said Sam, not bothering to hide his scorn.
"You know what I mean," insisted Ben. "You just woke up black this morning for the first time? Only thing I can figure for how you think you gon' look that white boy in the eye and tell him you's a free man."
They were silent together for a moment. Then Ben glanced up. "So, free man, I ask you again: you want to walk along here together for awhile? Like I told you, seem to me, we maybe might need each other."
Sam nodded. "Yes," he said, "maybe you have a point."
And maybe they both were fools. This whispered up from some dark and frightened place in his heart before he could think to tamp it down. It was a ghost of a thought, gone almost before it was there. But it was there. Had been, off and on, ever since he left Philadelphia. More than once, Sam had decided to turn back.
But he pushed on. He had no choice, felt himself drawn toward her in some fundamental, mysterious way impossible to understand or resist. He had to see her. He had to know. It was as if he could not go on until he had heard her verdict on his life.
Sam had no idea what that verdict would be. Probably, he thought, she would hate him. And how could he blame her? He was responsible for the death of their son. If he had not been so determined, if he had not been so mule-headed, if he had simply listened to her, the boy would be alive to this day — and they might all have been together right up till the emancipation, owned by a mistress who was good enough as mistresses went, who didn't allow beatings and didn't believe in separating families.
And it would have been all right. He could have lived on that. It hadn't seemed so at the time, but now he knew: he could have lived on it.
Instead, he had filled the boy's head with freedom. The boy had listened. And the boy had died.
And now, Sam was going back for the first time since it happened. To say what? That he was sorry, though Lord knew he was? To ask forgiveness? To say he never meant it to happen? To tell her that he never once, not for one moment in all those years, stopped loving her? The Lord knew that all this, too, was true, but what did it matter? What could he say, what words existed, for when he laid eyes on her for the first time after so many years?
None. None at all.
Excerpted from Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr. Copyright 2012, Leonard Pitts, Jr. Excerpted by permission of the publisher, Agate Publishing. All rights reserved.