10 A Plea Before the Honorable Court. Thirsty Ground. Are Mules Really Smarter Than Horses?
The day Skiffington first came out to Caldonia’s place about Alice and Priscilla and Jamie disappearing, Moses had expected to eat supper again with Caldonia that night, but she was not hungry and the dinner meal would be the only one of her day. She had thought all that day that the three would return before nightfall, finding it difficult to believe that two women and a boy would leave what she and Henry had made. A man perhaps, someone like Elias or Clement, not a madwoman and a woman who seemed to adore her. She had informed Skiffington as a kind of courtesy to the law, but when he showed up and stood before her, the whole matter of the disappearances became more important than the nuisance she figured it to be. It was as if one of her bulls had escaped and before a servant could find and bring him back, he had not just run through someone’s fields but run over a child or two. A simple misdemeanor correctable with money had become a felony. What saved her was that she was the victim.
Moses told her in the parlor that all had gone well even without Alice and Priscilla and Jamie. The harvest would be good. She reached her hand out to him, wanting him to sit beside her.
“Where do you think they are?” she asked. She had looked in Henry’s big book after Skiffington’s visit and estimated that the three might fetch as much as $1,400, depending upon the potential someone might see in a chubby boy and a woman who could work but might wander off on occasion. “Do you think something has happened to them?”
“No, ma’am,” Moses said. Feeling Skiffington’s eyes on him after he returned to work, he had wondered how long before everyone got over that the three would not be coming back, before they all got on to other business.
He put his arm around her but she said she was tired, and when he did not withdraw, she pulled away. They sat for several more minutes before she said again she was tired and needed Loretta and he got up and left.
She went to bed soon after, but could not sleep and got up around two and stood at the window and imagined the three of them coming up the walk, exhausted and glad to be home. What would Henry say of the mess that had come to this place? If three more left tomorrow and then three more and then three more, there would be no one before long but her and Zeddie and Bennett and Loretta. Would Moses be there? Would he go, too? She found solace in the way Skiffington had arrived so promptly. He took what was happening seriously and there was hope in that. She was tempted to go out to Henry’s grave but did not want to go stumbling in the dark out to the cemetery. Waking everyone on such a personal mission.
There was a gentle knock at the door and a momentary fear seized her that it might be Moses. The door opened and Loretta stood with a candle. “I knowed you would be up and not sleepin,” Loretta said. Would Loretta ever leave her? Which group of three would she be among? Henry had paid $450 for her, the big book had told her that morning. “I can feel when the house ain’t settin right.”
“Even if I can’t sleep, you should be,” Caldonia said.
“You want me to bring you somethin?” Loretta did not know all that went on behind the closed parlor door, but she knew that it was probably not good for either the woman or the man.
“Please find something for me in that satchel of yours, Loretta.”
Within five minutes Loretta returned with a drink and Caldonia drank all of it. She got into bed. Loretta sat on the side of the bed. They did not speak. The man Loretta would eventually marry would want to know why she didn’t take his last name, why she wanted no last name at all. “Is that what marryin you gon be?” she asked him. “Question after question every day for the rest of my life? Huh? Is that it?” The man she would marry was a free man who had spent much of his life on the sea. He had been talking to a man one extraordinarily calm day on the sea, and over that man’s shoulder he had seen two other conversing sailors simply disappear, become nothing in only the time it took to end one sentence to the man and begin another. The sailors were not in the sea and they were nowhere on the ship. “No,” the man would say to Loretta, “I won’t ask you no more questions.”
“I worry,” Caldonia said, the drink making its way through her system.
“Shouldn’t worry,” Loretta said. The captain and the sailors on the ship came to attribute the disappearances to one more mystery in their sea lives. The man Loretta would marry did not have very much heart for the sea after that. When his new bride asked him not to ask her so many questions, it was an easy thing to do.
Caldonia covered her mouth as she yawned. Loretta got up and straightened the covers and took up the candle and before she was out the door Caldonia was sleeping.
The next day Moses worked everyone, even the children, until well after dark. Delphie called out at last that they were all hungry and very tired and Moses should mind what he was doing. “We can’t even see what we be doin,” she said. “All this work just goin to waste cause we gon have to do it right tomorrow.”
Moses relented. He stood in the middle of the field and watched them trudge away. He had the reins of a mule and the mule, seeing everyone else leave, started following them. Absently, Moses went with the mule. He had heard someone say after dinner that day that his family had hated him so much that they would rather be whipped and killed by the patrollers than suffer under him. Just yall wait, he had thought, just yall wait till this whole mess is done.
He put the mule up and went to the house, still in the clothes and the sweat of the fields. Caldonia found his appearance endearing. She herself went and brought him some cheese and bread and coffee and watched him eat until a grin slowly spread across his face. “I needed that,” he said at the end.
“Why do you work so hard when you are the one in charge?” she asked. She took the tray from his lap and set it on the tiny table beside his chair. She pulled the perfumed handkerchief from under her sleeve and dabbed at the corners of his mouth and he was uncomfortable with an act that was so far removed from sex, but when she was done and had folded the handkerchief and placed it atop the tray, he was sorry the act was over. “I know overseers who sit on their horses and look over everyone else.”
“Wouldn’t know how to do it any other way,” he said and realized very soon how inadequate was the answer. But his inability to explain was also endearing. Her talking brought more of the same discomfort, and he was afraid that in not knowing the right answer, he might somehow give a wrong answer. “I was sick on my back last year, and I musta hurt more from the not workin than the sick. My wife say it’s in the blood.” He did not pause at the mention of Priscilla, but it came back to her that the three were missing, and for the first time, with the words “my wife,” she had a momentary thought that he might be involved. He held his hands out before him as if they could do a better job of explaining than his words. She took his hands in hers and felt the hardness of aged leather. They were smaller than those of Henry, who used to massage his hands with horse liniment.
She patted his hands and put one on each of his knees. “I been workin since I was three years old, just draggin that cotton sack along,” he said, speaking in a way he had not spoken since the first days with Priscilla, “maybe even before that if I could member back that far,” and he looked down at his lap. “The body commences to turn to the work the way you bend a tree and make it grow whichever way you got a mind to. It don’t know no better. You know, Missus, there’s horses that you can work and work and they keep on workin till they drop dead. Your average mule won’t really do that, but your average horse will. The mule be smarter.” She was afraid that he would share more and she stood up and hoped that that would bring it to an end, but he went on to tell her that certain work songs made the work a little easier but that there were others, depending upon the time of day, that dragged a body down, so “you just gotta be careful with your songs and your hummin and whatnot.” Henry sang as she curled up in his arms. Moses noticed she was standing and stood. He was quiet and she kissed him, for no other reason than that he was now silent. When she withdrew, he realized he should go. He wanted sex because he needed to be able to walk through that back door again without knocking.
Skiffington came the following day to tell Caldonia that no one in the county had seen Alice and Priscilla and Jamie. He had found her going in after being in the garden and they talked on the verandah, a light sheen of sweat about her face.
”It’s a mystery,” he said, “and the law doesn’t like these kinds of mysteries.”
“I don’t either,” Caldonia said. “Do you think they could just have escaped from the county?”
He held his hat down at his side and thought of Travis and Oden selling Augustus. He did not believe they would sell three more Negroes so soon after Augustus and after he had warned them. And, too, he had a strong sense that whatever had happened, Moses was involved. “I am beginning to see that as a possibility,” he said, raising his hat and running his hand along the brim. When she was younger, Minerva had put on one of his hats and he and Winifred had laughed, and so had his father. She was still nine. “They have escaped or-and you have to see this as being possible-they are dead somewhere.”
“Why not just hiding out?”
He brushed at the brim. “I have had my people look in every spot in this county, and unless they have taken to living in tree trunks or beneath the earth, then…”
She wondered if the three slaves would have been covered under policies from Atlas Life, Casualty and Assurance. Payment for escaped slaves.
“I have to go see Mildred Townsend,” he said. “I will say you said howdy if that is fine by you.”
“Yes. Yes,” Caldonia said. “Please tell her I will be out tomorrow. And you have heard nothing about Augustus?” He shook his head. “It might be the same people grabbed my three that grabbed Augustus.”
“I have considered that,” he said, “but those rascals are long gone. It would be months before they could come back through. He went south. If yours escaped, they went north unless the stars and the sun confused them, and they went in another direction.” He put on his hat. “I’ll be going, Caldonia. Want to ask a few things of your servants before I do, though.”
“Yes,” she said. “Have a good day, sheriff.”
“And you, Caldonia.” She went inside.
He walked his horse to the fields and looked for a long time until he found Moses among the other slaves. Moses saw him after a time but did not acknowledge him and kept on working. Skiffington got on his horse. He was beginning to feel that matters were getting beyond his control and that if he did not soon corral it all, he and all he had built up would be lost. Augustus. Three slaves very possibly murdered. That was how it started with Gilly Patterson, a failure to corral and then William Robbins’s loss of confidence in him. He had once asked God if wanting Robbins’s confidence in him put him in a bad light with God, and the answer came back no.
He saw a child returning from a privy to the fields and asked her if she knew the three missing slaves and she said she did. Tessie, Celeste and Elias’s girl, seemed to take a while to answer and he thought she was thinking of some kind of untruth when she was really wondering why he would ask that when the answer was as easy as telling him her name. He also asked who lived in the cabin next to Moses and she told him Elias and Celeste and their children. He told her to go tell Elias he wanted to see him. She told him Elias was her father. “Tell your daddy to come here.” Elias had nothing much to say but five days later he did, and his wife begged him to keep it to himself but he said he couldn’t hold it in. Had it been anyone else, he would have held his tongue, he told Celeste. “Try to hold it then for me,” she said back.
Skiffington knocked at Mildred’s door and heard the dog bark. She invited him in but he knew he had no good news and so did not want to take up too much of her time. He said, “I am always in a hurry to get, and this is another one of those days.”
”My husband still gone,” she said.
“Yes, Mildred. I can say no more than that.”
“I thank you for the trip.”
He spent the night at William Robbins’s place and blamed his angry stomach the next morning on the tough chicken-unusual for the Robbins table-they fed him for supper. Had they somehow riled up the bird before they wrung the neck? Angered up the meat?
At supper, Robbins had said, “John, I want to set a five-hundred-dollar bounty on the head of that speculator that took Augustus Townsend. I will pay that to whoever brings him to me or to you. Do I need to say it doesn’t matter if he is dead when they bring him?”
“I think when a man sees that five-hundred-dollar number, he will think ‘dead’ without the poster saying it.”
“Good,” Robbins said and ate heartily of the chicken, of the corn, of everything on the table, and as Skiffington put his face in the bowl of water the next morning, he was grateful that Robbins had not asked about the three slaves. But that would not have been Robbins’s way-he gave a man a while to prove if he could do the job. The slaves had been gone not a week.
On his way back to town, he stopped at Caldonia’s plantation and went to the fields and sat on his horse until Moses knew that he was there. The courteous thing would have been to let the mistress of the plantation know he was about but he did not think Caldonia would mind. He stayed so long he had time to bring out his Bible and read from it, still sitting on his horse. His stomach calmed down.
That evening Caldonia allowed Moses to make love to her for the first time since the three slaves went missing. He had wanted a night with her in her bed and he told her that, but she just lay in his arms on the floor afterward and said nothing. Then he asked, “When you gonna free me?”
“I say when you gonna free me?” She withdrew from him and stood up. “I thought you was supposed to free me.” He could not be her husband without first being free, not a proper husband anyway with authority over everyone and everything. There were free colored women married to slaves, but they did not have land and slaves.
“Please, Moses…” Neither word of mouth nor the newspaper said how many times the Bristol white woman had been whipped for lying with her slave. Had the white woman been forced by the slave, forced over and over again? Would that have mitigated the punishment? He forced me down and had his way with me, your honorable honor of the court, shouldn’t that be worth five fewer lashings? And, too, your honorable court, am I not still white? “Please, Moses, I don’t want to talk about this.” Freeing him had been on her mind but she had never put a day and a time to it.
“I want some free papers,” he said, and then added, “Missus.” He got up and put himself together. She herself was already buttoned up. He thought there was more to ask about, but Loretta knocked at the door and came in after Caldonia said, “Yes.” Moses left in a quiet rage.
Celeste told Elias about six the next morning that she was not feeling all that well. She was some six months pregnant. “A little digestion trouble maybe,” she said. “You know how your babies get about this time: wantin to see the world fore we know it’s time.”
”I’ll tell Moses you can’t work.”
“Maybe I can make it,” Celeste said.
“Mama, you can’t make it?” Tessie asked.
“Ain’t a thing to worry about, baby.”
Everyone was in the lane and Moses opened the cabin door wanting to know why Elias and his family were lingering.
Celeste was nearest him and she said she was moving a little slow.
“I want you out in them fields long with evbody else,” Moses said. He took Celeste by the arm.
“Now wait here,” Elias shouted and hit Moses’s arm with his fist and the overseer released Celeste. “Don’t touch my wife. Moses, I done told you she ain’t got it in her today. I’ll do her share, maybe Sunday, maybe nighttime. I done told you she ain’t got it in her. Let her be.” He stood between his wife and Moses. This was part of why it would be so much easier to talk to Skiffington later.
“Ain’t nobody doin nobody share but they own.”
“Ask mistress if I can do her share. Ask her.”
“We done spoke on it last night,” Moses said, taking one step back. “We talk on this all the time. What you been thinkin, huh?” He took another step back and was at the door and people were looking in from the lane and he knew they were looking. “I ask her, she ask me, and we settle this here thing bout evbody workin before the sun even come up. What you been thinkin, huh?”
“Elias, I be fine,” Celeste said. “You see. I be fine.” She put her hand on his shoulder and he turned to her. She had combed her hair before the pain came on and he could see how her hair, on either side of the part, had fallen in line with the will of the comb. “What you think? You marry a weak somebody? I’m here. I’m here.” She went around him and said to Moses, “I’m comin. I’m on my way.” Elias had earlier taken Ellwood, his youngest, and the other children under five up to the house and now Tessie and Grant followed their mother. She left the two men standing in the room and went out and joined the others as they made their way to the fields. May and Gloria walked on either side of her and took her hands. It was a bright day, as much sun as anyone would want, the kind of day some people would pray for.
Celeste was fine until after dinner. She returned to her half-completed furrow and as soon as she bent over, the pain of the early morning came back and she sank to her knees. She screamed and clawed at the plants until she took hold of one, uprooted it and squeezed. “Dear, Jesus, take this away,” she said of the pain. Before Elias could reach her, the baby in her was coming. He was down to her, holding her, when the baby arrived and settled in a bloody puddle in the furrow, still connected to her mother. The women came to Celeste and told Elias to step away, step on away. Celeste’s children came to her as well but two men picked them up and took them away. Celeste fainted. “Step back, Elias,” Delphie told him. “Step back, I say.” “Leave her be,” he said to Delphie, crying and believing in some insane way that by holding his wife he could make all things right.
Delphie took hold of Elias’s neck with both hands and shook him and he released Celeste and Gloria held Celeste but not at all in the way Elias had been holding her. The ground had not had rain in a few days and so was quite ready for the bloody puddle.
In the end, Elias picked her up and carried her back to the cabin. She woke along the way and did not know where she was or, for a moment, remember what had happened. She did know that the sun was full in her face and that so much sun meant she might not have any rainwater to wash her hair.
He laid her on the pallet in the cabin and no sooner had Gloria and Delphie came in to see to her and change her clothes than Elias thought of Moses. “I’m gonna kill him,” he said, the words coming like a hiss.
“What you goin on about, husband?” Celeste said. “What all you goin on about?”
Elias stood up. “I’m gonna hurt him like no man’s been hurt before.” Delphie rushed to the door and closed it and put a hand up to Elias’s chest. “Ain’t no place out there you needs to be now,” she said. “Leave him there. Please, Elias, leave him.”
“You move, Delphie. I don’t wanna hurt you to get at him. You move now.” He was not shouting. He had heard Tessie at his door and he wanted his daughter to know from a calm voice that her father was coming. In his mind, he could see her standing beside Grant, and he could also see Grant looking up at his sister as she called first to her mother and then to her father. He had forgotten that little Ellwood was up at the house. A calm voice was what his daughter needed. “I been knowin you a long time,” he said to Delphie, “but you gonna make me go through you and I don’t wanna do that.”
“Husband, come over here,” Celeste said and tried to raise herself up on her elbow. Gloria gently pushed her down. “Stay,” Gloria said.
Delphie put her hand at Elias’s throat, the more to gain his attention, and said, “Leave this mess be right now.” “Husband, I want you to come over here. Ain’t you listenin to me, husband?”
Out in the field Moses was in just about the same spot as when Celeste fell. He was waiting for the right time to tell all to go back to work. Clement, the man who had stolen Gloria from Stamford, had gone up to the house not long after Elias carried Celeste away. Now, as Moses worked out the words in his head, Caldonia was moving to Celeste’s cabin, and Loretta was following her. Loretta had forgotten to bring the satchel of bandages and root medicines.
Caldonia tried to open the door but when it wouldn’t budge, she called Celeste by name, then she called Elias. “They inside,” Tessie said. Delphie opened the door with one hand and held the other arm out to keep Elias back. “Moses made her lose her baby,” she said to Caldonia. Delphie remained at the door and Elias lowered his shoulders and Delphie said to Tessie and Grant, “Your mama and daddy need yall to stay here for now.” Before the children could speak, Delphie closed the door.
“This ain’t over, Delphie,” Elias said as Caldonia and Loretta knelt to his wife. “This ain’t over by a little bit.” “I ain’t never said it was, Elias,” Delphie said.
Moses stayed away that evening and the next evening the house was quiet as he came up to the back. He knocked and waited until Zeddie came and let him in. “She be in the parlor,” Zeddie said and Moses took off his hat and went on through. He was wearing his good pants but had not bothered to wash as he sensed there was no use.
Loretta was standing at the window and Caldonia was in the middle of the settee. “Why would you put a woman in the family way in danger, Moses?” Caldonia said.
“She playactin,” he said. “They all playact sometime. I ain’t never seen a one that don’t playact sometime.” Loretta’s back was to him and he spoke some of his words to her back and some of them to the grandfather clock next to the window.
“She lost her child, Moses. Don’t you know that?” Caldonia said.
“I heard that,” he said.
“You let me know from now on when somebody talks about feeling bad. You come to me first.”
“That could make things bad all round. Real bad.” He wanted to say her name but they were not alone. This is me, he wanted to tell her. It’s me you sayin all this to.
Loretta turned from the window. Whatever she had been watching was no longer of interest. She unfolded her arms. This could have been my husband, she thought, and I could have been his wife. Married, one together. Would she now have been wherever Priscilla and Alice were, out in God knew where with her child?
“I don’t have any more to say, Moses. This is a disappointment. I don’t have any more tonight.” Loretta took two steps, signaling Moses that he was to leave.
He went out the back door but did not go to the cabins. He stood many yards from them, watching the smoke rise from all the chimneys except his own. He heard a hum and thought it might be all the evening conversations rising as one above the cabins and making a noise to the universe. A hearty laugh drifted out of the lane but by the time it reached him there was no life in it. He wanted to go out to the woods and be with himself, something he had not done in days, but he would have had to go down through the lane and he did not want to see any faces seeing his own. There was a long way around but he chose not to take it.
After he had been standing there nearly two hours, the life along the lane quieted and he went down and into his cabin. There were no sounds from the cabin next to his, from Celeste and Elias’s cabin. Moses took off his shoes. He sat with his back against the door in the dark. About three o’clock he just leaned over and fell asleep across the doorway. Not long after he did that, Elias came and tried to push the door in, but finding it barred, he went back to his cabin.
The next evening Moses came in the back door without knocking, just opened it and went by Bennett and Zeddie sitting at the kitchen table, and walked into the parlor where Caldonia was standing talking to Loretta.
”I needs to talk to you,” he said. “I needs to.”
“What?” Caldonia said.
He pointed at Loretta. “You leave.”
“Wait, Moses. You wait,” Caldonia said. Loretta walked around him to the door and Moses stepped closer to Caldonia.
“Why you got me waitin round like this, like I’m somebody’s child? Why ain’t you done freed me?” He raised his fist into the air between them. “Why you doin this?” He took one more step and as he did, Loretta took her time and put her arm around his neck, a knife in her hand pressing into his throat so that he had to lower his foot in mid-stride.
“I ain’t foolin with you,” Loretta said. He had seen her, too, once upon a time before he eventually married Priscilla, but had always thought that a house woman was beyond him. What would she have seen in him? But Priscilla had toiled in the same fields he toiled in. Such a better match. “I ain’t foolin with you, Moses.”
He and Caldonia were watching each other. He trembled and saw himself back in the woods, naked and on his back. The night birds were watching and Alice was watching. He could hear Priscilla approaching, loudly, stepping on first one twig after another. He lowered his head and the knife was closer than before.
When he was gone, Loretta got a pistol and gave one to Bennett. Loretta wanted to go out and find the patrollers, to have them take Moses away, but Caldonia told her he would be himself by morning. “Henry’s death,” she said finally, “has unsettled all of us.” Before going to see Celeste that night, Loretta, on her own, had Clement come up and stay the night at the back door. “Be careful,” Gloria told him before he left.
Moses could feel that the world had changed even before he came to his feet the next morning. When he opened the door they were all waiting for him to lead them off to the fields. Celeste and Elias were not there, as Loretta had told Elias to stay with his wife and that Zeddie would bring them food. The slaves of the field were murmuring, like they did on any other day, but he knew it was all different and felt a dryness throughout his mouth.
He went up to the back door at about eight that evening and Loretta was there and told him their mistress was not up to hearing him that evening. “Tomorrow’ll do,” she said and raised the pistol so that it was inches from his face.
“I got plenty to say to her,” he said. “I got somethin to say.”
“It’ll wait. Where’s it goin?” she said and Bennett came up behind her. “It ain’t goin nowhere.”
He left and stood where he had the evening before, waiting for the life in the lane to quiet so he could go home. Being in the woods did not cross his mind. Being out there was good only when he could come back to something that was not pain every second. It had been more than a whole day since he had eaten, he realized, but he was not hungry. And this thought came to him at about the same time as Celeste was standing over her husband as he fluffed the straw in their pallet. Their children were now sleeping and the hearth was throwing out the last of the day’s light and heat. They, the entire family, had gone earlier for the first time to the new grave of the baby Lucinda, and they were all weighed down by the agony of the visit. When Elias was finished with the pallet, he reached up to his wife’s hand and put it to his cheek and then helped settle her on their bed. “I wonder,” she said for the first time ever, “I wonder if Moses done ate yet.”
He could hear them gathering out in the lane before the first rooster crowed. Someone knocked once at his door and called his name, but he did not answer. He was sitting with his back against the door, just as he had the first night. And, as with that night, he sat there not to bar anyone but because that was as far as he went once he entered the cabin. Someone called him again. A woman sang:
Come on outa there, Mr. Moses man
Come on out and lead us to the Promise Land
People laughed, even the children. “Mr. Overseer, is you here? Mr. Overseer, is you there?” The woman sang again. Moses thought, Could anyone plant a row of cotton with that song? “Leave him be,” a man said. He thought it might be Elias but the more he considered it, the more Moses realized it could be any of the men. Then he could hear them walk away to the fields, the first morning in a year that he had not been among them. Would they know that that bottomland had to be left alone for at least another five days? He had eaten a good pinch of the dirt two days ago and it just wasn’t ready yet; a good rain was what it really needed, and then you could go at it all you want. But not now, not today… “I’m countin on you to run this place,” Henry had told him after the plantation had four slaves and three more were due to arrive any day from the neighboring county. “You be the boss of this place. There’s my word, then my wife’s word, and then there’s your word.” “Yessir, Marse Henry.” His master had opened the big book one day to make some notation and pointed at some words in it, saying, “Thas you, Moses. That says, ‘Overseer Moses Townsend.’ ”
There was quiet. This, he thought, is what this place be soundin like when not a soul be around. He got up and peed into the fireless hearth. He sat again at the door. His cabin was dark except for the thick line of light at the bottom of the door, the line broken in the middle by his body. Priscilla had had a time keeping the wind from getting under that door. “It’s a wonder we don’t all freeze to death, Moses. Can’t you get me some more rags for that door?” Priscilla hadn’t been such a bad wife. Lord knows if he and that Loretta had been together, he would have had to kill her by now. Pullin a gun and a knife on him like that. Yes, he would have had to kill her by now. Or she would have killed him. One or the other. Did those words really say “Overseer Moses Townsend”? Maybe they just said this man belongs to me always and always. And after I’m gone, he belongs to my wife, Mrs. Caldonia Townsend. Don’t you see my brand right there on his hindpots?
Something pecked at the door. He heard the flapping of wings and a rooster crowed and Moses wondered who was supposed to be watching the chickens. The rooster pecked again. “Go way,” Moses said. “Go way from that door.” His voice just seemed to encourage the bird and he crowed once more. No, Priscilla hadn’t been such a bad wife. And the boy could have turned out right with just a little more time. A little less fat. The rooster pecked. “You want me to come out there and wring your neck? Thas what you want?” Then the quiet returned.
What all had he ever really asked for in this life, such as it was? He could have done better for the place than Henry Townsend. People would have said, “That Marse Moses, he got somethin magic in him to make that plantation like it is. I did time over to Marse Robbins and Marse So-and-So and Marse Everybody-Else. Did time in all those places and they ain’t got half the magic Marse Moses got. It’s another Eden, the preacher say, and I can’t say no more than that.”
He sat there all that day, dozing and talking to himself, and then he listened to everyone return from the fields, listened to Elias and Celeste and their family next door preparing their supper. The children were loud in their laughter. Well now, you can’t blame them. They just bein little chaps, is all. Who in this world can blame chaps? About eight-thirty Celeste tapped at his door. “I got a little somethin for you to eat, Moses. You open and take this now, Moses.” He could hear her standing on the other side of the door, could see her as full and clear as if she were standing before him, leaning just a little bit to the left because of that bad leg, her hair combed with one of those many combs her husband had made for her. “Moses?” He had witnessed that slave saying to her one day that she should be shot like a lame horse, had seen her cry. Had she cried because of what the slave said or because she had seen him standing there and seen him turn away from her? Where was that slave now? You listen here-just take back every damn word you said to this poor woman. Take it back or this overseer will whip you till you raw. This woman gon be in the family way one day and she don’t need that kinda talk. “Moses, just open this door one little bit and take this here nourishment. You need some nourishment, Moses.”
She went away and came back about an hour later, then a half hour after that. Not long before midnight, he stood up and opened the door and stepped out, stepped right into the food Celeste had finally left at the door. He knelt down to it and ate the bread and the meat and put the corn on the cob in the pocket of the pants Bennett had long ago given him. Once standing again, he thought about the corn some more and the way the pants had felt when he had first worn them and he took the corn out of his pocket and knelt again and set it on the empty metal pan. He hoped she would not hold his leaving the corn against him. He stood up and thought he saw Alice coming out of her cabin, singing. I met a dead man layin in Massa lane. Ask that dead man what his name… Now that was a song a man could plow a field with all day long. He raised he bony head and took off his hat. He told me this, he told me that… Just the proper rhythm. Up this row and down another.
Loretta was at the parlor window when he went out to the road. She did not wonder what he was doing or where he was going, but she did set the pistol on the table beside her. Morning would be time enough for her to put it back in the cabinet.
He went the way he had seen Alice go one of those times he had followed her. And when he reached a fork in the road, he took the way he thought she would go. It was a clear way, that road, one that would allow him to see the patrollers long before they would see him. He thought that was one of the most important things. He did not know enough about the world to know he was going south. He could have found his way around Caldonia’s plantation with no eyes and even no hands to touch familiar trees, but where he was walking now was not that place. The other three roads had bends and turns in them and he didn’t think Alice would have ever taken them. Why, he asked himself after he was well on the road, why would that dead man have his hat on in that road like that? It just didn’t make any sense at all. It was a good song to work by, but that was all it was good for.
He had left the door ajar and Elias used both hands to push it open all the way the next morning. Elias hunched his shoulders to the little gathering when he came out. People were still coming out of their cabins and Elias used that time to take the empty pan to his cabin and then he walked up to the house and asked Bennett if he had seen Moses, told him the overseer hadn’t come to work that day or the day before.
Elias came back from the house and told everyone that it looked like Moses had run away. Some people went to work, others went back to their cabins. Gloria and Clement slipped away amid the confusion of the morning. Bennett came down about eight that morning and told Elias to get everyone out to the fields and then he went into town to find the sheriff to tell him that the Townsend plantation had a runaway overseer on their hands. It would be late that day, after Skiffington had come and gone, that anyone would notice Gloria and Clement were not about. They would never be seen again.
“Don’t tell them a thing,” Celeste said to Elias after Bennett had gone. “Don’t send them to no fields. Don’t send them nowhere. If she want them workin so much, let her come out here and do it herself.”
They were in their cabin, their children playing just outside the door. The doll he had made for his daughter rested in the center of her little pallet, next to their sleeping youngest, Ellwood.
“Don’t do her work for her, Elias. Please, don’t do it.” He went to her and took her in his arms. It was a good day outside where their babies were playing; it was the kind of day made for running away. A good strong man without a family could run all the way to freedom and stand on the other side, his arms high above his head, and cuss out the patrollers and the masters and the sheriff, just cuss them out all day and get up the next day and do it again before getting on with the life God meant for him. Yes, a good strong man could do. He kissed the top of Celeste’s head.
Their children had been joined by others and one child screamed playfully, “Stop pushin me down. That hurt.” “I told you I was comin,” a child said. “I told you I was comin so look out the way.”
”Everything’ll be all right,” Elias said, and as soon as he had said that, she took herself from his arms. “Now, Celeste, you listen to me.” He was thinking: When they bring Moses back, Moses will see how the world went on without him. Elias took his wife’s hand. It was not much, a day or even a week of good work to throw in the overseer’s face; it was not worth a baby’s life or his wife’s sorrow, but it was what he had.
“It ain’t right,” Celeste said. “It just ain’t right to go and do what they bought you for. Why make it easy?”
“Now watch and see how far this here rock goes,” a girl outside shouted. “See. See.” “Oh, that ain’t nothin,” a boy challenged. “I can make mine go clean over there.” “You just showin off, is all.” “Cause I got somethin to show off about.”
Elias said, “Is this here thing gon grow up to be somethin bad tween me and you, honey?” Their son ran in and put his arms around Elias’s waist. “Come watch me run,” Grant said. Elias said, “Just answer me about if this here thing gon grow up bad tween me and you?”
Celeste was near tears. She looked through the tears at the boy. “Come watch me run, Daddy,” the boy said. Elias saw her shake her head no. She was thinking, Not now, Grant, when she shook her head, but Elias thought she was saying no to that thing growing up bad between them, and so he was relieved. “I gotta go work,” Elias told his son. “I watch you later, son.” He felt himself in charge of the place now, and that meant his family, certainly not the children, would not have to slave away. “Well, I’ll watch for a minute,” he told the boy, “but a minute all I got.” He said to Celeste, “You just rest up.”
He left the cabin and she followed him to the door. Grant ran off and back and his father clapped and their daughter Tessie came forward with the other children and they all shouted to Elias that they could do it all so much better. The boy said no, no, not better than me. Elias told the children that they were not to come to the fields that day and he led the adults away. Grant came to Celeste and swung her arm about as if it were a rope hanging from a tree and then returned to the other children.
She limped out to the lane and looked back to make sure Ellwood was still sleeping. The children ran by, then ran back the other way. It was like Sunday. The rooster that had been pecking at Moses’s door scurried to the side when the children ran his way and it would have run into her place but she shooed him away. “You get along home,” she said. She was thinking that such a lovely day could only mean that they would kill poor Moses when they found him. The God of that Bible, being who he was, never gave a slave a good day without wanting something big in return.
Skiffington knew the moment he saw Bennett that the man had come about the overseer. What crime had he committed now? The sheriff had just come out of the general store and saw Bennett riding up in the wagon. He noticed that Bennett rode mostly with his eyes not on the road before him but down on the mule’s head and harness. William Robbins had come by the jail the evening before, inquiring of him-and Counsel-about their progress on finding Caldonia’s three slaves and Augustus Townsend. Robbins had brought Louis, but his son did no more than stand near the door as the white man let the sheriff and his deputy know that escaping slaves jeopardized practically everything they all had. “Bill,” Skiffington had said, “you’re not telling me anything I haven’t thought about a thousand times.”
Bennett made to get out of the wagon, but Skiffington told him to tell whatever it was from the seat. Bennett looked momentarily forlorn, as if his message would lose its urgency if he had to tell from the wagon. And as Skiffington watched him ride away, he saw that the man was not used to riding a wagon, just in the way he let the mule ride all over the road. No doubt, he thought as he continued to watch Bennett go away, if he knew nothing about driving a mule, he knew nothing about riding a horse.
Someone walking on the other side of the street called out good morning and Skiffington raised his hat out of habit. He and Winifred and his father and Minerva should have been in Pennsylvania long ago. He should have been an American citizen doing well in Pennsylvania, where Benjamin Franklin had lived. He should have been on the bank of a nice river, showing his son how to make a living just from God’s bounty. And Minerva should have been out, out with some Pennsylvania Negro, out so that he would not think about her in a way a father should not think about a daughter. Out and about, Minerva should be, so that he would not think, as he had the day before, that once, just once, would not hurt anyone, would not disturb anything that mattered. Shhh… Don’t tell Winifred, and don’t tell God. Shhh… He saw that Bennett had stopped for something crossing the road. He seemed to be standing there for a long time and Skiffington wondered what could take so long to cross a road. Just once… Is that what Eve said to Adam, or did Adam say that to her? And if it was just once, would God allow him to see Pennsylvania?
Bennett started up again and Skiffington went down the steps to the road, the dust rising almost imperceptibly as he set both feet down. A good rain would do us all some good. He looked over his shoulder. The door to the jail was open just a bit, but it did not matter because he had no prisoners that day. Someone else bid him good morning and he raised his hat again. He went left, headed for the boardinghouse, to get Counsel and tell him that he and the patrollers were failing with the primary reasons they had been hired. Four slaves from one plantation. Who could live with that? And one of those slaves had murdered the other three. But four were still gone, four had disappeared from the books. He stopped in the street and realized that the boardinghouse was in the other direction. And if he moved to Pennsylvania and Winifred gave him a daughter, and not a son, would he think of her the way he had been thinking of Minerva?
He turned around and headed down the way he had come. Slaves, Minerva, and now Counsel coming in later and later, sleeping up with that boardinghouse woman like he was a young dog who had never known a woman in his life. Everything was coming apart. “How you this morning, John?” His only job was to pull it all back together again, make it whole and right the same way God had given it to him. “John, tell Winifred Mrs. Harris so appreciated what she did for her. Tell her that for me, will you?” Go and stutter no more, for I have led you out of the stuttering valley into this place I will give you and all your generations. Count them… Sit here by the road and count them like leaves on a tree…
Three days later Skiffington was standing in nearly the same spot as the morning Bennett came to tell him about Moses running off. “Mr. Sheriff,” Bennett said, “Missus want me to tell you that her Clement and her Gloria done gone, too. Just up and went away. She want me to come tell you that.” Bennett again had trouble maneuvering the wagon around. “Why don’t you just ride a horse like every other man?” Skiffington asked him, counting up the numbers of missing slaves. “Well, sir,” Bennett said, considering the reins in his hands, “a horse ain’t nearly as smart as a mule, the way I hear it.”
Just as Bennett managed to turn the wagon around, Counsel rode up the other way and Skiffington lit into him about what a lazy man he was becoming. Counsel said nothing but got off his horse and tied him to the post and went into the jail. Skiffington followed him, all the while calling him a lazy deputy, so loud that even after they were in the jail, people along the street could hear the sheriff, which was not like their sheriff, and the mule and Bennett could hear him as they rode out of town.
That was Tuesday.