Note: This excerpt contains language that some readers may find offensive.
Fire Bell in the Night
By Geoffrey S. Edwards
Paperback, 464 pages
List Price: $15
The Mexican War ended in 1848, but the American victory was hollow. The land ceded in defeat — the New Mexico Territory and California — became the source of a political powder keg.
Slavery once again divided the country. The new lands did not fall under the Missouri Compromise, which, thirty years before, had imposed an artificial border between North and South, free states and slave. The tenuous balance offered by that compromise was now upset.
There were fourteen free states and fourteen slaves. The new lands threatened to tip the balance to one side's favor. Neither could afford to lose.
An all-southern convention was scheduled for the summer of 1850. There, the South would be poised to secede from the Union were California and New Mexico admitted as free states. Many in the North promised such an action would force an armed response. Meanwhile, in Texas, a border dispute arose. An armed standoff between federal soldiers and Texas militia was taking place on the banks of the Pecos River. The Texans wanted their promised land. The federal troops refused to budge. The slave- owning states were prepared to come to the aid of their southern brother should conflict erupt, an act that also would have precipitated Civil War.
This was the precarious state of the Union. This was the Crisis of 1850.
End of April, 1850
Someone tossed a pine log onto the campfire. It hissed and popped, and sparks swirled in the updraft like fireflies.
Ten men arose and moved wordlessly away, single file down the path. Their black forms blended with the night.
The eyes in the circle watched stiff backs and clenched fists as the men disappeared one by one into the trees. In sadness, those in the circle picked up a chant set to the rhythm of a heartbeat. Had they seen the men's faces, they would have been afraid.
My Lord. My Lord. My Lord.
For better days ahead,
For better days a plea,
For better days ahead,
Come sound the Jubilee,
My Lord. My Lord. My Lord.
Jebediah Jones had a key to the toolshed. His ingenuity and resourcefulness never failed to impress his fellow slaves. That he could produce the needed key now, at this time, seemed an omen. They waited silently, barely breathing, listening to the rattle of metal against with night sounds all around them.
My Lord. My Lord. My Lord.
There was a click as the hasp opened, then the long slow creak of the hinges, frighteningly loud. Then Jebediah was inside the shed, passing out tools. He chose for himself the only ax. It glinted silver in the moonlight and reflected like a pale lantern on his features. His face looked so different now that his friends barely recognized him. His normally lazy eyes looked strange, red almost, but not from tears. His voice had a tight quality, devoid of inflection. The men circled around him as he went over the plan one final time.
"Everyone remember, it's Gantry we go afta' first. Solomon and me will slip up to his cabin and do what need be done. The rest of y'all wait behind the trees over yonder." His monotone whisper broke off as pointed to the west. "Afta' we's done, we'll meet up by his cabin and make our march on the house. Since none of us is sure where the massa sleeps, we'll split up once we's upstairs and look for the bedroom. Then we kill him and his missus." He looked around at the group, his steel gaze meeting each man's eyes-they glowed like moonstones. "Understand?"
The youngest of the group, Christmas, leaned forward; his words soft. His finger shot up toward the sky. "Th- the moon be right fo' this, Jeb?"
Big Jim, the man beside Christmas, jerked down the arm.
"Don't never point toward the moon," he growled. "Makes for bad luck."
Jebediah took a step forward, reinforcing each man with his rigid, emotionless bearing.
"Ain't none of that matter. No moon, no stars, nothing. Only matters when a man think it does. Y'all understand?"
With that, he turned and walked toward the overseer's shack. Nine men fell in behind him, in step to an internal cadence.
My Lord. My Lord. My Lord.
Mrs. Smythe had brandished the silver soup ladle at face level as if it were a key piece of evidence. It gleamed in the sun, and the boy still not keep his eyes off it.
"He was holding it behind him, looking guilty as sin, Mr. Gantry. And I said, `How dare you! How dare you!' " Her voice rose with pious outrage.
"There now, Mrs. Smythe. You just sit yourself down." The overseer bobbed his head as he spoke, then drew a porch chair into position for the lady of the plantation. He noted with alarm the color in her cheeks and the droplets of perspiration on her upper lip.
"Don't distress yourself, missus. I'll get to the bottom of this."
The lady collapsed into the chair in a fit of dizziness, grimacing and wrinkling her nose slightly as Gantry spoke too close to her face. He had not taken but two drinks this morning, hair o' the dog, but Mrs. Smythe always looked like she had caught a whiff of something disagreeable. She fanned herself rapidly with her hand. "All this aggravation will be the death of me."
Gantry narrowed his eyes and turned to the gangly field slave. He changed the volume and timbre of his voice. The coating of syrup was gone. "What were you doing up here at the house in the first place, boy? You know you don't belong here."
The thirteen-year-old stammered, having trouble getting started. Then the words poured out in a rush. "Sir, Bessie called to me when I was bringing up the firewood. Told me to hunt for some mint leaves, right quick, and bring 'em to Cook in the kitchen. I ain't never been in the kitchen before, sir. Went through the wrong door-"
Gantry held up a hand to cut him off. "You knock on the door, boy.
You don't just open it."
"I did knock, sir, but-"
"This is a nightmare," Mrs. Smythe declared. "A complete breakdown of authority."
"I'll get to the bottom of this, ma'am," Gantry soothed. He then resumed his interrogation. "What were you doing with that spoon in your hand?"
"I saw it on the table, sir. It was so shiny. I was looking at my face in it. Then the missus come, and I . . ."
Johnny Walker was unraveling fast, and his servile decorum was crumbling. His eyes now flashed from Gantry, to the spoon, to his mistress, like a bee trapped indoors, bouncing off the windows. Gantry knew he had to get the boy out of there, or the lady would have one of her "spells."
"I've heard all I need to hear from you," Gantry barked. He turned the lady. "I'll take care of this matter from here on, Mrs. Smythe.
Don't trouble yourself no more. I'll see that this boy won't be bothering you."
She sighed and shook her head. "No one understands what I have to deal with. It is just one thing after another."
Gantry grabbed the boy by the collar and marched him down the steps, away from the house.
The ringing of the bell had brought the slaves in from the near fields. They convened the back of the big house at a round dirt patch the bondsmen called Hell's Circle. The mansion formed the backdrop, two stories of pristine white showered in midday light. Its gracefully curving walks and hedges seemed an extension of the gently rolling landscape. The old folks said that even after fifty years, the manor looked as fine as the day they helped build it. It seemed a waste that such a dwelling now housed only four permanent residents: the master, his wife, and the two young children. The house slaves, of course, did not count.
Gantry now sat on the steps of the covered back porch, where the slatted railing seemed to form the maw on the face of the great white creature. Above, sun glinted off the thick panes of the two second- story windows of the porch wing, which looked down like angry eyes. Under the sun's full glare, it was almost impossible to look at them. "Just as well," the elders often whispered. "Our eyes ain't meant to see such things." And Johnny Walker had not been meant to get too close.
The boy now stood fidgeting in the center of the dirt circle. He did speak, and neither did the forty or so slaves who ringed the periphery. They avoided looking at him and at each other, preoccupied instead with the distant trees in blurred focus, the endless blue of the sky, and the red dust at their feet.
Gantry's boots stirred up the dust as he approached, and the boy seemed to shrink a little, as if he hoped to disappear into his baggy clothes.
"Ain't no reason to be scared there, boy," Elijah Gantry said calmly.
"If you just admit what you did and apologize to Mrs. Smythe, there's no reason this has to be bad."
"Sir, I's very sorry that I upset the missus, but like I said, I just picked up a couple pieces to take a closer look, that's all." The boots paced back and forth in front of the boy. The older slaves knew that what Gantry wanted here was a confession of guilt and quick justice — just like in the Bible.
"Be not deceived. God is not mocked," he intoned forcefully while pointing at the heavens to indicate a direct quote. "For what a man soweth, so shall he also reap!"
The boy's confused look showed that he wasn't getting it, so Gantry stepped closer to make his point.
"Boy, Mrs. Smythe told me she caught you stealing that silver. You put it behind you and slipped it into your pocket. Now you wouldn't be calling Mrs. Smythe a liar, would you?"
Johnny Walker rooted in his pockets with his hands, mute, his chin quivering slightly in indecision.
Gantry resumed. "Well, if you ain't calling her a liar, then you must be admitting that you was gonna take it."
"But, sir, I wasn't gonna take it. I just wanted to get me a closer look, that's all. I promise."
Never certain of the temperament of a drunken Gantry, known to sway from jovial altruism to overt cruelty, the slaves stood frozen in anticipation of his response. When he heard the boy's continued claim of innocence, the crocodile smile melted from his unshaven face.
Gantry's fury erupted. He ran at the boy and delivered a blow flush to the side of his head, dropping him to a knee. As a collective gasp resonated among the spectators, the overseer tugged Johnny Walker back up to his feet by the collar of his shirt and began a succession of punches to the stomach, each creating a hollow noise like a thumped melon. Gantry released his hold on the slave, allowing him to drop awkwardly to the ground, but the onslaught did not end. Gantry delivered a succession of well-placed kicks, circling the young slave as each new position offered a ready target. The overseer finally stopped when the boy drew himself into a whimpering ball, then stood erect over his victim with a smirk.
"That ought to teach you a lesson," he said, panting. He began to stuff his shirt tail back into the confines of his belt.
Those forced to witness the beating had averted their eyes and held their tongues. Now they began to buzz as Johnny Walker rose gingerly to his feet. The boy's action was more a breach of etiquette than a testament to his manhood. He simply did not know that he was supposed to stay down. As the boy's face rose level with Gantry's, the overseer's eyes changed.
"Back to the ground," a slave yelled out.
"Please, sir," a woman pleaded to Gantry. "The boy be all messed up. He don't know what he's doing."
Johnny Walker swayed back and forth; he was fighting a battle with each leg to simply remain upright. Gantry reached over and grabbed him by the back of the neck, and he went limp like a cat. The overseer pushed the boy's chin up with the other hand. One eye was swelling shut, and the trail of blood and saliva that dribbled from his mouth moved in and out with his uneven breaths.
Elijah Gantry smiled with only the mouth. "You just don't get it, do you, boy?"
Johnny's response came out slurred and barely intelligible. "Sir, honest. I didn't mean to do nothing."
Gantry seemed to cringe a bit, and he gritted his teeth. He pushed the boy back to the ground and fingered the coiled whip on his belt. He appeared to vacillate, as if the Puritan in him wanted to purge the usual admission of guilt, but the overweight drinker was unequal to the task. He then straightened with an idea. Gantry removed his hat and cast his gaze skyward. "Oh Lord, help me. I do all I can for these people, and this, this insubordination, is how they respond to my kindness. But, as you say in the Good Book, those who do not obey their masters shall reap My wrath.' He turned his attention back toward his worldly audience. "Well, then, if that's how its got ta be. Walt! Robinson! Come over here."
The two summoned field hands strode through the mass and met a foot from the downed boy.
"I want y'all two to take this boy and put him in the box." Walt and Robinson looked quickly at one another but did not move. Walt, the taller man, dropped his head and removed his large-brimmed hat. He used the back of his hand to wipe away the accumulation of sweat on his brow before shuttling a quick glance between
Gantry's face and his boots.
"Begging yo' pardon, sir, but there ain't a cloud in the sky, and it's mighty hot today. Not like normal fo' this time of year. Don't you think-"
"I know what the damn weather is. I don't need no nigger to tell me what I already know. Now pick up that boy and take him to the box. Now!"
The two men backed away from the overseer and attended to the boy, Walt and Robinson each taking a knee and putting an arm underneath Johnny Walker's shoulders.
"I swear, Walt, I wasn't fixing to steal nothing. Honest," Johnny whispered.
"I know, I know. That ain't important now."
The onlookers watched silently as the boy was carried off, both feet dragging behind him, stirring up the ash-dry dirt and leaving a ghostly trail.
A hundred yards away sat the box. It was Elijah Gantry's newest correctional device, and he would proudly tout it as the only one in all of Habersham County. A rectangular structure, six feet long by four feet wide, the box was anchored in a ditch between two dirt walls. A thin layer of metal covered its braced wood frame. Gantry had overseen its construction during the previous winter after his return from a buying trip to Savannah. He called it "the cooker." Slaves had asked how it worked, but Gantry was uncharacteristically inscrutable. Instead, he had offered a demonstration three weeks ago, just before the weather turned.
Bartholomew had been caught stealing food, and he was sentenced to spend two hours in the box. He thought he had gotten off easy. Upon his exodus, however, the slave declared on wobbly legs that it was "too hot in there fo' the Devil hisself." Bartholomew was not one to pass up a chance at a good yarn, and he said that while in the box, he had heard pounding from down below.
"The Devil was openin' hisself a chimney straight from Hell, right into that box." Some believed him; most did not. But subsequently, no slave would walk within fifty feet of the box if they could avoid it.
It was now late April, and the heat of summer had come early. And today there were no clouds to lessen the sun's wrath. As Gantry stood on the compact earth before the box, the men could see the shimmering waves of heat rising from the metal. Gantry shook his head a little and scratched his beard.
"Let's go ahead then."
Walt bent his head to the boy's ear. "Don't you worry now, son," he said. "We be back in no time to spring you."
Robinson continued. "Remember now, the Good Lord be in there with ya. You remember that."
For the first time since the beating, Johnny's face showed awareness and fear as Walt slowly pulled the door open with his free hand and the blast of hot, stale air fell against their faces. Robinson fanned his free arm in front of them in a futile attempt at ventilation. Then the two men hunched down, careful not to touch the sheet metal as they slid the boy halfway into the box.
"Remember now, son, we be back directly," Walt reiterated, grasping the boy's arm firmly for reassurance.
Johnny Walker dragged the remainder of his body inside and immediately curled into a ball. Gantry walked over and slammed the door, lodging a stick between two pieces of metal as a makeshift lock.
"Let's not dally about then. There's work to be done."
Gantry dusted off his hands, walking past the two men and toward the somber gathering near the plantation house. He turned once, briefly, to call out a warning.
"Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof!" No one was sure exactly what he meant.
It was late afternoon by the time news of Johnny Walker's predicament filtered to the far end of the plantation. Jebediah Jones had been tilling his patch of the "northwest forty" when Nat had come over from the adjoining field with the news. Jebediah had been born on the Smythe plantation close to thirty-five years ago and had worked the land since he was ten. From childhood, two droopy eyelids had given him a perpetually sleepy expression, and exceptionally long arms and legs had made for a gangly look, ensuring that his clothes never quite met wrist or ankle. His parents had resigned themselves early to the fact that he would never be a handsome man.
Sensing the need to enhance his desirability, his parents invested in the boy's education, which was no mean feat, as it was illegal to teach a slave to read. They both hired themselves out in their free time to raise money, and eventually found a free black woman willing to tutor the boy. Blessed with a quick mind, Jeb soon mastered the simple reading primer and graduated to the Bible. But Jeb did not confine himself to book knowledge. He listened when the old folks talked. He showed them respect, and they told him secrets — about planting and hunting, about the old proverbs and traditions, and of the poems women liked to hear at courting time. As Jebediah drew respect from the community at large, girls his age became intrigued.
He chose to marry Prudence, a fine-looking and well-built slave girl whom he admired equally for her free spirit. For Prudence, good-natured laughter came easily. She was also clever; she patched and trimmed Jebediah's old clothes with scraps of fabric in bright and pleasing colors. Over the years she had borne him four children, three boys and a girl, and been a good wife. They shared their cabin with
Johnny Walker, an orphan whom Prudence had seen fit to raise as her own. Upon hearing the news of Johnny's punishment, Jebediah, for the first time that day, took stock of the weather. After dealing with the Georgia heat for so long, day in and day out, he had developed a certain tolerance for the oppressive conditions, knowing how to work himself optimally without falling ill from too little water or too much sun. But the box? That changed everything. Jebediah turned his head toward the unclouded sky, squinting his eyes even further shut. Suddenly it was hot.
"Don't ya worry, Jeb," Nat soothed, placing a hand on Jeb's shoulder. "I'm sure the boy be just fine."
Jebediah remained silent, staring statue like toward the house. Nat continued, sensing the man's line of thought.
"Ain't no good gonna come by you running back there and stirring up a hornet's nest. I'm sure the boy be back in your hut resting anyways. All that's gonna happen if you go charging back there is that you and Mr. Gantry is gonna have a date at the whipping post."
Jebediah's eyes regained focus, and he swiveled his head toward Nat. Jeb looked into the man's kind eyes. Nat was talking sense, and Jeb knew it. He also knew that each foot of ground he tilled and each breath he drew would come hard until the driver called them in.
"Day be almost done," Nat said, noticing the lengthening shadows.
"Ain't done soon enough."
He counted to force the time to pass. He moved his lips and said the numbers under his breath. What did the Good Book say? That a day in God's life was like a thousand years? Well, he would just have to wage his own private battle with time; he would not let it play its cruel tricks on him.
". . . Nine sixty-two. Nine sixty-three."
"Bring it on in!" the slave driver trumpeted in his throaty baritone.
A long procession of field hands fell in line for the walk home. They soon broke into a sad melody to which the slap of feet on the dusty road served as percussion.
This ain't Christmas morning, just a long summer day,
Hurry up, yellow boy and don't run away.
Grass in the cotton and weeds in the corn,
Get out the field, 'cause it'll soon be morn.
Jebediah did not join in. Nor did he fall into line as he would on a typical day. He walked briskly down the road-running was forbidden and over the large hill that was the high point of the Smythe land.
The hill was called Harold's Hill after the late master, father of the present owner. The Georgia clay glowed red below Jebediah, and just to the west, the great pine forest marked the border of the plantation. The road ran along the forest for a considerable distance, and close enough to provide a view of the long dark rows between the tall loblollies. The wall of trees seemed like an ocean to a man who had never seen the sea. It started near the house and ran deep into the far reaches of Georgia herself.
Many a discontented slave had spent time hiding in that forest of pine, only to return when the food ran out or the weather turned. Most received a beating for their disobedience, but many said their time out there was punishment enough. One could walk for miles in any direction and have no sense of change or progress. Jebediah wondered if the interminable pines drove men mad.
He continued his brisk walk down the hill, gaining speed as the incline became steeper. He stopped briefly at the work shed and returned his hoe to the driver in charge.
"Clear your patch today?" the mulatto named James asked curtly.
"Aye," Jeb responded. "Most."
"Well, make sure you finish that up on 'morrow. Ain't but a week till we gotta plant."
Jeb turned his head away and nodded. After the driver waved him on, he returned to a quick pace and headed for his cabin. The path forked by an ancient oak at the base of the hill. The lane led on to the big house, while the right path led to a collection of slave cabins on the east side of the plantation.
Jeb considered himself a fit man. But his chest had gone tight when he got the news about Johnny Walker, and his breaths came shallow. He felt a bit weak in the knees, and his strides came up short, like he was running in water. He forced his mind away from that line of thought and back to the thud of his feet on firm ground. He started to count again — this time the number of strides per breath. He was coming to the slave cabins now, twenty-seven of them, all cut from the great bordering pines.
The Jones cabin was located in the middle row, down toward the far end. Hanging on the door to his home was a carved sign that read "Jones Family" — a present Jebediah had made for his wife following the birth of their first son.
Jebediah reached the door and charged in, out of breath. Hoping to see Johnny Walker, he instead saw his wife seated in the good chair with his oldest boy, Ezekiel, standing beside her. Prudence bounced to her feet upon his entrance, rushing to the side of her husband. She still wore her field dress, a long white cotton garment tied at the waist with a hemp belt. Her collar was cut low in a V, stretching down her chest. The dress was sleeveless, and dirt smudges ran down both long, muscular arms. Her hair was tied back and hidden underneath a white bandana, with a few locks slipping out over both ears. Her dark, beautiful face was swollen under the eyes, and tears stained her cheeks.
"Oh, Jeb," she cried. "What is we gonna do?"
"Where is the boy at?"
"That's just it," she said, struggling to talk between sobs. "Mr. Gantry beat him good and put him in that box. No one was meant to-"
Jebediah grabbed her around the upper arms and clenched.
"I know all about that. Where is the boy at now?"
"Oh, Jeb. He's still in there. Mr. Gantry ain't never taken him out."
Jebediah let go of Prudence and dropped his head.
"What we gonna do, Papa?" Ezekiel asked anxiously.
The father drew a long deep breath, then spoke gently to the boy.
"Now ya listen. You go eat, and take your momma with ya. In the meantime, I'll be figuring a way to get Johnny out."
"I'll help you," Ezekiel said.
"No," Prudence interrupted, her voice calm now. "You listen to your papa. You come with me and get some food."
Prudence leaned forward and kissed her husband gently on the cheek before starting for the door. Once they had left, Jebediah sat in his chair, clutching his head as he tried to work out a course of action.
Accustomed to having few options, he soon decided that his best plan was to find Gantry and somehow convince him to release the boy. Jebediah knew that Gantry was suspicious of his intelligence, but he also knew what Gantry wanted most — to feel important. Now he believed that if he showed the proper deference, the respect that Gantry yearned for, the overseer would bow to decency and let the boy out. He grabbed his hat and left the cabin. Jebediah had no idea where to find Gantry at this time of day, but he figured his cabin was as good a guess as any. Rounding the hedge of azaleas that formed the border between the manor grounds and the slave paths, he caught sight of four slaves moving quickly toward him: Solomon, Walt, Big Jim, and Thomas West, the last being his cousin.
"Assume y'all heard about Johnny Walker," Jebediah opened.
"Aye," Big Jim answered in his deep voice. "That's why we was out looking for ya."
"Have you seen Gantry?" Jebediah asked. "I'm trying ta find him ta see if I can plead my case."
"That's what we came to talk with you about," Walt replied. "Saw Gantry not an hour ago leave with that house- nigger Gemmins to ride up into town. Lord only knows when they's coming back."
Jeb ran his hand across his face and forced himself to take a deep breath. He had just lost his most viable chance to free Johnny Walker.
"C- c- cousin."
Thomas West had opened his mouth, and Jebediah could see him working himself up to talk. Stuttering was common among slaves, but for Thomas West it was almost incapacitating. Jebediah put his hand on his shoulder. "Sure there, Thomas."
"I d-don't think he sh-should be in there m-much longer." The slight man's brow was wrinkled with the effort. "So, w-what you th-th-thinking we should d-do?"
Jebediah looked his cousin in the eye. "I s'pose there's only one thing to do. We've gotta go get him out now. Ourselves."
"I was hoping you was gonna say that," Solomon said. "It's why I brung this here hammer. Figuring we can break off that lock with it."
The other men nodded in agreement, and the group now doubled back toward the plantation house. The decision to act had calmed Jebediah, but the proximity of the box now began to increase his dread. The rising fear again clutched at his throat and weakened his legs. It was the same feeling brought on by his nightmare, one based in experience. It was the time he almost drowned.
It had happened the year that Ferson Creek, swollen by heavy rain, had almost wiped out the bridge by the South Road. Jebediah had been part of the work detail, and had been ferrying supplies through knee-deep water upstream from the bridge. Fatigue had set in, Jeb had lost his footing, and the dark green current had carried him under the bridge to the deeper water downstream.
The rushing sound in his ears had been deafening, and the shouts of the men onshore, the distorted babbling of demons. His eyes had been wide open, and he could half see his arms thrashing before him. When he thought he would burst, he had taken a breath of the water. Something in the ancient part of his brain screamed that if he did it again, he would die. Panic had propelled him high enough to cough up the water and seize a breath of air.
Jeb surely hadn't known how to swim, but he had seen men do it. Fighting terror, he had lain flat and flailed with his arms and legs, trying to grab breath when his head was free of the surface. Somehow, amid the fear and the choking, he had made slow progress toward the outstretched hands on the shore. He knew he had to press on like that; make his legs work, make his mind work, and get to the boy.
The five men cut across the grass, the dirt path, and Hell's Circle without uttering a word. The big house was a drowsy creature now, the outside mottled with gray and purple shadows. There was a light in the glassy eyes, but little movement; Mrs. Smythe prided herself on running an orderly home, and all slave activity after dinner cleanup was frowned upon.
All five slaves approached the box in a straight line, with Jebediah at the front. He walked over to the door of the box and began to fiddle with the handle as Walt strode to the side and flapped his fingers quickly against the roof of the device.
"Still hot," he whispered. "But ain't like before."
"Give me the hammer, Solomon," Jebediah said. He tapped it lightly on the roof twice. "Don't ya worry, Johnny. We'll have you out in no time."
Jebediah pounded upward at the stick lodged between the metal of the door. Within seconds the tool did its work. He tossed the hammer the side and pulled the door open, releasing a wave of hot, foul air on the group.
"Johnny," Jeb said forcefully. "You alright?"
Without waiting for an answer, he slid both arms in, reaching for the boy. He stopped. His hands had encountered a form too hot to be human.
"Ah, no," Jebediah gasped quietly. "Big Jim, help me."
Big Jim jumped down into the ditch and joined in the effort to remove the young slave from the box. The two men reached in and were able to pull him out by the legs. Then Jeb knelt beside him.
"Oh, God, no," he breathed. The boy laid motionless, his shirt soaked with sweat and vomit. His face had a kind of gray, washed out look to it. His skin remained hot to the touch. Jebediah quickly put his ear to the boy's chest and his hand over the mouth.
"Sweet Jesus," Big Jim lamented. He was looking at the dried blood on Johnny Walker's fingers. The boy had tried to pry away the metal.
"H- he alive?" Thomas West asked, frightened.
"Aye," Jeb whispered. "Heart and breathing's quick, though. Too quick." He stood up and looked about him as if he hoped to spot tangible help for the boy. He settled on the men around him.
"We got to get him back to the cabin right quick. Thomas, run back and get Mary Watley and her daughter and tell 'em to get to my cabin."
Thomas West nodded and sprinted off, defying the rule.
"Big Jim, help me get him up."
Big Jim helped to place the boy in the cradled arms of Jebediah. As the group hurried back toward the slave cabins, Walt walked next to Jeb and held the boy's head level. Jeb refused at any point to hand the boy over, as hard as it was to bear him.
As Jeb pressed on, the heat of the boy's body was a constant admonition that he should have come straight in from the field when he heard the news — Gantry or no Gantry. It might have freed him from the heat sooner, it might have made a difference. Now he could only keep his legs working, carry the boy home, get him some help, make him safe.
He was passing the cabins now. They had a hazy look, like they were under water. He wondered if he was crying. Sound was distorted too. There was clapping and banjo playing somewhere up ahead. People were talking, and children were squealing as they ran about in their play — but only up ahead. When he came even with his neighbors, when they saw him carrying the boy, the pitch of their voices dropped, like the passing whistle of a night train. The sounds of cabin life were lower and slower behind him.
Jebediah stumbled through his open door and gently set the boy on the floor in the center of the cabin. Prudence stood off to the side, her hands on her cheeks, quivering. The children all froze in place, their young eyes fixed on Johnny Walker.
"Zeke," Jeb said from his knees with a calm force. "Get your brothers and sister and take 'em outside. Go to your uncle's cabin. Stay there."
Ezekiel obeyed without an argument, gathering the entranced children and escorting them outside; not an eye left the boy before Zeke closed the door behind him. Jebediah was scared. Never before had he been struck with such a feeling of helplessness, of pure uncertainty, that leveled him as he knelt beside the boy he had raised for the last eight years. His eyes remained on Johnny Walker's face, for he could not muster the courage to look at his Prudence. He had no answers. The most influential slave on the Smythe plantation was ashamed; ashamed he had not better protected the boy and, moreover, ashamed he did not now know how to save him. Prudence seemed to understand. She did not utter a word, thereby sparing him the effort of speech. She simply knelt down beside the boy, placing herself by his head, and began to gently rub her hand forward and back across his hair. Jebediah did not feel her glance upon him, and he was grateful, for he feared he would break if their eyes met.
Despite the aid of Mary Watley and her daughter, who repeatedly administered an herbal brew and sponged the boy with cool water throughout the night, Johnny Walker died in the early morning, before sunup. He passed with his surrogate mother and father clutching his hands and quoting passages from the Bible, neither having left his side from the moment he entered the cabin.
Prudence, with a voice as cool and calm as a spring Sunday morning, sang a hymn as Jebediah wrapped the boy in the good family blanket.
No more rain fall for wet you, Hallelujah,
No more sun shine for burn you,
There's no hard trials,
There's no whips a-cracking,
No evil-doers in the kingdom,
All is gladness in the kingdom.
No one spoke much at the communal breakfast, for the grief was too fresh. Soft words and gentle touches were replaced by a growing unease when the call to work was late in coming. When the house bell rang instead, it came as no surprise.
Jebediah could see Gantry sitting on the porch steps. The overseer waited until all were assembled before hauling himself up and shuffling across the grass. He looked like he'd had a bad night. His eyes were puffy, and lank strands of hair fell from behind his ears. If he had a comb, he had lost it. The buttons and buttonholes of his shirt were not lining up, and his belt had also gone missing. His left hand was now permanently stationed at his waistband. He cleared his throat and spat.
"I assume y'all know why we're here," he opened.
Before continuing, he pried his eyes open to their widest and scanned those present. What he saw must have surprised him, for his eyes narrowed and he shifted position as if uncomfortable. Jebediah glanced at the slaves around him. They were not looking at their feet or the sky, as was typical. Every slave's gaze was focused on the overseer.
Gantry increased his volume. "You are here because one of you, or more than one of you, defied me." He began to walk back and forth.
"Yesterday, I sentenced the boy Johnny Walker to time in the box 'cause of his thievery. Yet, when I returned last night to release him, what did I find?" He paused. "Nothing. No one. The boy was gone. This just ain't acceptable. Now, I expect those of y'all that participated to step forward so that you may receive your punishment."
Jebediah felt Prudence squeeze his hand. Gantry coughed, and then raised his voice.
"If one of you does not step forward, then I'll be forced-"
Jebediah parted the two slaves standing before him and strode to the edge of the dirt circle, cutting short Gantry's threat. Big Jim, Solomon, Walt, and Thomas West followed immediately. The five men formed a line, all with their chests extended and their chins high, proud in their defiance.
Gantry moved toward the men, one hand on his pants and the other on the whip, stopping five feet away.
"Well, Solomon, I certainly ain't surprised to see you had a part in this. But I'm disappointed in the rest of y'all." If Gantry expected some sort of response, he received none. He looked right at Jebediah, who now looked past him. "So tell me, Jebediah, where's that boy of yours at now?"
Jeb did not answer or move, though his will was fighting a war of great proportion. He wanted to speak but he knew he dared not, for his level of control was by no means certain. Instead, his throat was clenched so tightly that it hurt, and his pulse began to beat in his temples.
Gantry's voice deteriorated into a growl. "I said, where's the boy at now?"
"He be dead sir," Walt muttered.
Elijah Gantry's mouth half opened, and he furrowed his brow.
"Dead? God have mercy," he muttered, then stood silent for a time. He looked at the ground, the slaves, then back to the house. "But if he hadn't tried to steal Mrs. Smythe's silverware, none of this would have happened."
His own words seemed to embolden him, forcing back any guilt.
"All of you remember, in the end it is not me, but the Lord God who passes the final judgment on your actions. However, do not let anyone say I have no compassion. There will be no whipping today." He swung around and started toward the house.
Jebediah felt oddly disappointed. He had never been beaten — ever. Yet, strange as it seemed, he had wanted the punishment now. The sting of the lash was a tangible pain that he felt he could face squarely and overcome. Perhaps it could displace the unfocused pain tearing at him from inside. He began to relax the tensed muscles that had held body rigid and treelike before the overseer. Fatigue overcame the disappointment, and his entire body began to ache.
Gantry stopped after about ten paces and turned to face the group. He looked like he was having second thoughts about the whippings.
"I'll discuss what happened with Mr. Smythe and come up with an appropriate punishment," he warned.
"But, for now, there's work to be done. We got to get the fields ready. Jebediah, you may take one other man and dig the boy's grave. Y'all can have the funeral next week after the field is planted. The rest of y'all get back to work."
He clapped his hands twice to dismiss the group, then shuffled off in the direction of his shack. Jebediah and Thomas West made off for the storage shed to get a shovel so they could get on with burying Johnny Walker.
William Smythe made no bones about his lack of interest in the day-to-day operations of the plantation. After all, that is why he paid good money for an overseer, so that these things could be handled without his ever dealing with them. Farming was not his raison d'être — a mantra he repeated almost daily — and outside of griping about slaves with other gentlemen at social gatherings, he was content to go through life without discussing them at all.
William Smythe had not put down cash for a new slave in years, so it never failed to amaze him that at each Sunday meeting he saw faces he could swear he had never seen before. He guessed it was because he never really looked at his slaves, but of course, they rarely looked at him either. If they did, it was certainly not with the filial love stressed by the preachers; the looks more closely resembled indifference. That suited Smythe just fine. He let Gantry preside over the roast pigs and barrels of bourbon. He let his dear wife keep track of the little darlings' names at baptisms. Outside of his personal attendants, he would be hard pressed to name five bondsmen under his control, and those would be the playmates of his youth.
Unfortunately, the continuing drought now threatened his self-prescribed lifestyle. For the last year and a half, his financial base had deteriorated as the Georgia ground dried up; meager cotton harvests and dropping international prices combined to strip the region of much of its wealth. After last year's poor harvest, and in the midst of a dry spring, William Smythe was forced to look at the books.
The situation had him in a permanently foul mood. Not only were his hunting trips fewer, country rides shorter, and parties less frequent, but that jackal of a wife was constantly nipping at his heels about money for the latest fashions or new English furniture for the house. He rued the day of his marriage, and when pushed would openly declare it, forcing the woman into a fit of hysterics that he rather enjoyed.
He glanced up briefly at the knock on the open study door. It was Gantry, unkempt as ever. If the man was not going to bother to wash his clothes, the least he could do was hang them up. The man obviously lacked the perspicacity to note his employer's example — every day a fastidious three-piece suit and a meticulously tied cravat.
"May I come in, sir?"
"Stomp your feet first," Smythe replied. "I don't want that infernal red dirt scattered throughout my study."
Gantry pounded his feet on the floor mat and tromped in gracelessly. He stopped three feet short of the desk and loomed over Smythe silently as the planter kept his eyes on the ledger.
"How's your family, sir? Your lovely children?" Gantry opened.
Smythe raised his hand, palm extended, and held it there for many seconds, offended by the overseer's interruption. Then, finally, he raised his eyes in concert with the lowering of the hand, stopping his gaze on the unshaven face of Elijah Gantry.
Smythe hated insipid small talk, especially from those who did not at least equal his social rank. He rolled his eyes and went straight to business. "Gantry, I called you here to discuss your wanton disregard for my property." Smythe gently rubbed his manicured mustache and paused for effect.
"Sir, I must protest. I ain't messed with any property of yours."
"But you have, Mr. Gantry," he said, twisting the Mr. in such a way as to make it offensive. "You see, I put you personally in charge of the welfare of all my slaves. My property. And yesterday, you saw fit to, how should I say this . . . disregard a slave boy's welfare. Now that boy is dead, worth nothing, and you sit here with the audacity to say you haven't messed with my property?" Smythe glowered but kept his tone even.
"Sir, the boy was fixing to steal Mrs. Smythe's silver."
"A punishable offense, for certain. But death? I find that a little extreme, don't you agree, Mr. Gantry?"
"Yes, sir. I will be more careful in the future."
"Indeed you will, and you will also be fined. While in ten years you could not possibly be able to afford to pay me what that boy was worth, you will still take some responsibility. A dollar-fifty a month from your salary."
Gantry fiddled with his hands. "Yes, sir."
"Good. Now, there is another pressing matter. Unfortunately, as you know, financially we are not what we were just a couple years ago. This-"
"I know, but that's all gonna change. I can feel it, sir. Rains are coming."
The planter slammed his hand down onto the desk, forcing Gantry to jump back. "This is important," he declared forcefully. "In order to stay economically viable, we are going to have to make drastic changes. I just returned from town, where I made a deal to sell off five of our women slaves of childbearing age to a man interested in taking them west. Mississippi, I believe. I know this will be an unpopular decision. However, without an infusion of cash now, this plantation will not survive until the next harvest. In order for food to remain on our tables, the sacrifice must be made."
"I understand, sir. Do you know which five you want to sell?"
"I have a list of names here, based on my records. I picked out five over the age of twenty-seven — no sense giving away young ones if I don't have to. Also, none with children under three." He handed the list to Gantry, who looked down at the names. "Have them ready this afternoon. You will take them to town yourself."
"Yes, sir." Gantry pursed his lips, then spoke. "You know, sir, one of these is a widow, but the rest is married women. I could-"
Smythe held up his palm. He allowed a hint of venom into his voice. "If you had done your job better, this action would not be necessary. My decision is based upon sound business reasoning. The buyer won't exactly accept eight-year-olds or eighty-year-olds, will he?" He paused while Gantry shuffled his feet. "According to my records, these are the best ones to go."
"One other thing," Smythe said, his eyes returning to the ledger. "I don't want there to be a horrid scene with them and their families. Crying and the like. You know as well as I do, darkies get far too emotional. Make sure you remove them subtly, as to not arouse suspicion. The last thing I need with this headache is to hear little children all day long. Do you understand, Gantry?"
"I do, sir," Gantry answered. The overseer started for the door, then stopped for a moment, eyeing the list.
"What now?" Smythe snapped.
"Nothing, sir." Gantry walked out the door and down the hall, dragging his boots on the carpet.
Prudence wasn't home when Jebediah returned after the long day. She had been one of the five women hired out to the Berger plantation for the afternoon to clean out the chicken coops. Jeb walked the children down to supper, and at dusk, when Prudence still hadn't returned, the children began to grow alarmed.
"No need ta worry," Jeb told them. "None of the women is back from Berger's yet. They got 'em a late start. Nat said Gantry didn't come pick up your momma and the others till after midday."
"The road over to Berger's goes by Ferson Creek," Zeke said to his father out of earshot of the other children. "Ain't that where they seen the panther tracks?"
"Aye, folks say they seen 'em. So my guess is, if the women finished up late, they'll probably bring 'em back early on the 'morrow."
Jeb was saddened at the thought. He would have welcomed the comfort of Prudence's low, gentle voice, the peace he felt when he held her.
He read to the children from the Scriptures before bedtime — one of their favorite stories, Daniel in the lion's den. When all but Zeke were quiet and sleepy, he left them in his charge and walked down to join the folks by the campfire at the commons.
There was not much talking going on. Old Mosley was strumming his banjo, and most were just listening. After a few nights, Jeb knew that folks would start telling their stories about Johnny Walker. How he wouldn't eat anything green, about the time he hooked a big ol' fish and put it on Granny Bev's line when she was sleeping, and how he tried to act like a man when he was scared. But it was still too soon.
There were three or four folks gathered around Hannibal, who was conjuring with some chicken bones. He was shaking them in his jar and tossing them out in the dust. After a few minutes, those around him got to buzzing. Christmas left the group and came over to sit beside Solomon, one down from Jeb. He spoke in a low tone.
"Hannibal says something ain't right."
"Do tell." Solomon nodded as if the young slave was stating the obvious.
"He don't know what it is yet," Christmas went on, "but he thinks it be bad."
Jeb turned away from the conversation. He didn't place much credence in Hannibal's predictions, but he avoided contradicting him. The conjurer made dozens of predictions every week, but folks only seemed to remember the ones he got right. Tonight the prediction gave Jeb a hollow feeling nonetheless.
A commotion began over by the first row of cabins. Hetty's beau, Damon, a free black man who bought and sold rags among the plantations, had just come by to see her. After the first deep rumble of his voice, hers came in high-pitched and agitated. "No! That ain't right.
He grabbed Hetty by the shoulders, and she started wailing. He started shaking her, and Jebediah called out, "What ya doing down there?"
Damon let go of Hetty and walked slowly toward the group. The men at the fire stood up. Damon had always been an outgoing type, but now he did not seem to know who to look at. He kept glancing among the men, then his eyes settled on the fire.
He spoke in a low, even voice. "This afternoon, early on, I was over by Wilmont. A white man had a wagon of women he said he'd just bought. They was setting out for Mississippi. I recognized some of 'em and went on over to see Sheriff Maston. Told him I knew some of 'em was from the plantation around here, and I asked him if it was legal. I give him stuff free, so he don't mind talking with me. He said Mr. Smythe had signed the papers good and proper, and Gantry had brung 'em over himself this morning.
"I recognized two of the women." He looked at Big Jim. "Your wife was there, and so was Prudence." He glanced at Jebediah, then looked away.
"It can't be!" Big Jim's sister jumped up. "They's working at Berger's. Just for the day."
"You ain't met Sally but once," Big Jim said. He sounded mad at Damon. "You gotta be mistaken."
Damon's voice was low and sad. "The sheriff got no reason to lie."
"How many?" Walt asked. His voice did not sound like it came from him; it cracked when he spoke. He grabbed Damon by the arms.
"How many women was in the wagon?"
"There was five."
There were shouts and cries of grief all around him, but Jebediah just stood very still.
"No." He shook his head. "No." His voice wasn't loud or even agitated, but the inflection was wrong. It rose up at the end like a question.
The others were yelling and looking at him, and he was just standing there. Then he heard the water rising. It was rising fast, coming up around his head. Folks were still talking loudly to him, but he was very calm, just listening to the water coming.
He thought he saw Prudence for a moment in the faces pressed around him. But he knew she was gone and not coming back.
"Not my Prudence. Oh, my Lord." He heard his own voice saying it. But then it was drowned out by the sound of the water and the sound of his heart hammering in his ears. He started to kick hard, fighting for the surface, but the water was pulling him down ... down ... He should have realized it before. It wasn't so bad if you stopped struggling and just let it wash over you — if you breathed it in, very deeply.
Jebediah himself was a little surprised at how steady his voice sounded as he discussed the course of action with the men. As the nine who had decided to leave the campfire moved ahead down the path, Jebediah stood facing Thomas West. Thomas was working up his courage to speak.
"J- Jeb. You s-sound real c-calm like. B-but are you alright?"
Jeb looked at his cousin for a long moment. "Thomas, I love you like a brother, always have and will fo'ever. But now there's something I have to ask of you."
"Sh- sh- sure, Jeb."
"Don't come with us tonight. Now hear me out. The children be too young to fend fo' themselves, all except Zeke. I need you to look after 'em." He stopped and looked into his cousin's eyes.
"Please, Thomas, will you do this for me?"
Thomas West nodded slowly. Jeb stepped forward and grasped the man in his long arms, squeezing him tightly before kissing his cheek.
"God bless ya, Thomas. Now go back to the campfire. Stay there till the others return to their cabins. Then you go ta yours and stay inside till it be morn."
Jeb walked to his door, leaving Thomas West alone on the warm Georgia night.
"I l-l- loves you t-t- too, Jeb."
My Lord. My Lord. My Lord.
* * *
Eight of the slaves hid in the woods as they were told, while Solomon and Jeb walked toward the overseer's hut. There was no stealth in their actions. Jeb thought that if you were about to kill a man, there should be nothing sneaky about it. As they reached the doorway, both men stopped and looked at one another. Solomon was working his mouth. Jeb could see that he was trying hard to swallow. Jeb put a hand on his arm and raised his eyebrows in question. Solomon took a couple of quick breaths, then nodded. Jeb turned back to the wooden door and delivered a fierce kick just below the handle. The latch splintered, and the door fell open with a crack.
"What in God's name," the voice from the back of the room rasped, muddled by sleep.
The light of the full moon was at their backs. The two men could see Elijah Gantry quite clearly, but he was squinting at them, moving his head from side to side as if trying to figure things out. Their long shadows fell upon him as they approached. Gantry fumbled for the oil lamp on his nightstand and managed to light it as the men stopped just feet away. Jebediah Jones, ax in hand, met his startled eyes with cold indifference. Then Solomon leaped forward with the knife.
Solomon thrust twice, to the stomach and the chest, bloodying the overseer before the man was able to throw the attacker off onto the floor. The blood was spurting out of the chest wound, and Gantry looked at it as if surprised. He tried to stop it with his hand. The eyes looked up at Jebediah.
"Please," the man gasped.
Solomon was now back on his feet. He stood motionless, looking at Gantry. The blood was welling up, and Gantry started to twitch, then flop around like a fish. Solomon kept trying to swallow. Two pairs of terrified eyes looked to Jebediah.
He slowly raised his thumb to his neck and ran it quickly across his throat. In a moment it was over.
The two slaves found the others where they waited by the edge of the woods. Both men carried torches they had lit from the lamp in Gantry's shack. Jebediah saw his companions' faces in the sharp angles of light and shadow cast by the torches. They first studied Solomon, covered in blood but uninjured, then Jebediah. The faces changed as they looked; he watched them harden into masks of resolve. Then the men moved on to the house.
They approached from behind the azalea hedge, moved along the side of the house, and came at it from the rear. The light of the torches reflected on the darkened windows as they passed.
Jebediah climbed the porch steps and the men followed him. They walked right in through the unlocked kitchen door.
The kitchen boy, asleep on his pallet by the pantry, heard them enter. He made no sound, but followed their progress through the dining room, where the torch light glinted off glass panes of the china cabinet and the silver service on the sideboard. Their shadows followed them like giants; the china rattled as they passed.
He watched them move into the open front hall, where two staircases began on opposite ends of the room and arched inward to meet at the second-floor landing. Each torch led half the men up an opposite staircase; the two black symmetrical snakes with heads of fire wound up the steps at the same moment. Then they disappeared into the upstairs hallway, leaving only light and shadow.
The boy heard Missy Margaret's sleepy, high-pitched voice call out, "Mammy, is that you?"
Then she started screaming, at first like she did when her brother threatened her with a frog. But after that, like nothing he had ever heard. And then little Massa Robert started screaming too.
Grown-ups were yelling, but he couldn't tell who they were or what they were saying. And above it all, the missus's little dog kept barking and barking. He put his fingers in his ears to block out the noise, until one by one, the voices stopped.
And then he heard it, and the hair prickled on his neck, and he shivered clear down to his bones.
"Ah-ooo, ah-ooo, ah-ooo," the little dog howled on and on in the darkness.
The men split up after they left the house. Some took the road that led away from town, while others took the path into the north woods.
Jebediah shuffled back across the plantation, entering the cabin where the "Jones Family" sign hung slanted on the door.
Inside he sat in his chair, watching the children sleep for a final time; their heavy breathing, like God's whisper. He stood, then walked up to the children, placing a gentle kiss on each forehead, hoping to God that one day they could forgive him for what he had done. Thomas West would look after them. He was a good man. And in spite of his stutter he was a whole man.
Jeb knew that the waters had claimed him. They had swept away all that he had and all that he had been, including that part deep inside that masters and overseers had not been able to touch. There was nothing left of Jebediah Jones.
Only from the top of Harold's Hill could one have seen the shadow slip across the far fields, disappearing into the great dark forest of pine.