9 States of Decay. A Modest Proposal. Why Georgians Are Smarter.
Darcy and Stennis and the people-including Augustus Townsend-they had stolen reached South Carolina in less than two weeks. Stennis had dumped the dead child, Abundance, on the side of the road long before they hit North Carolina, the child who had been coughing since Manchester. “We should bury that poor baby,” the chained Augustus said as Stennis got back in the wagon after dropping the girl’s body in the weeds. Augustus had held the dead child for miles, not wanting to believe she was dead. “Don’t leave that poor baby out there like that.” Darcy and Stennis had kidnapped Abundance Crawford, a free girl suffering from a cold, as she walked down a road outside of Fredericksburg in her new shoes. She would have turned nine years old in two more weeks.
”Should we bury her, Stennis?” Darcy said.
“Ain’t got no shovel, Marse,” Stennis said.
“I’ll do it,” Augustus said. “I’ll dig her a grave with my hands. Just gimme some time.”
The people in the back of the wagon with Augustus said they would help him dig a grave with their hands. Those people were two men and one woman. All of them, except for Augustus, would be sold before the wagon reached Georgia. The two men were Willis, a thirty-seven-year-old brick maker who had one leg shorter than the other, and Selby, a twenty-two-year-old baker who five weeks ago had married a woman whose hair went down two feet beyond her neck. Those two men had been free people, like Augustus. The woman was Sara Marshall, a twenty-nine-year-old seamstress whose master and mistress had given her their last name ten years before. “Don’t bring shame to our name, Sara,” they had said in a kind of ceremony in their kitchen. “Always bring honor to our name. The Marshall name stands for something in this land.”
“Don’t know bout no buryin, Marse,” Stennis said of the child Abundance, “gettin them chains off and on. Watchin em so they don’t run away. Lotta trouble for somethin that won’t cause no more trouble in this world.”
“Well,” Darcy said, “if you don’t know, how am I to know? Push on, Stennis. Push on.”
In North Carolina, as they approached Roxboro, Augustus asked if Darcy might not send a telegram to Mildred, “my worryin wife,” and let her know that he was alive. Darcy asked Augustus if he knew that sending a telegram would mean a loss for his pocket and told him that a careful man of business would try to cut down on losses as much as possible. A telegram was a loss, he said, adding that it was better that “poor Mildred” think he had just ascended to heaven due to his good nature. In Roxboro, Willis the brick maker shouted to a passing white man that he was free and had been kidnapped. Darcy grinned at the white man and said, “We done had this problem with him since Virginia.” The man nodded.
It was in South Carolina, at Kingstree, at the Black River, that Augustus decided that he would do as little as he could to help his kidnappers, but beyond that he was helpless. By then, way before Kingstree, Selby the baker was gone for $310 and Sara Marshall was gone for $277 and an early-nineteenth-century pistol that Darcy was to learn only worked when it wanted to. Sara’s buyer thought it amusing that she had a last name. “Shows her good breedin,” Stennis said to the buyer. And there at Kingstree, Willis began to lean forward all the time, his chest over his thighs and his face in his hands. “We gon get outa this,” Augustus kept telling him.
Darcy went up to a man in Kingstree as the man came out of his house. The house was on the only street in the place. “Might you be interested in some good nigger flesh,” Darcy said and took the man back down to the end of the road and around to an alley where the wagon of people was. Darcy had the man by the elbow the whole time and the man had not protested. Stennis brought Augustus down from the wagon. Willis did not raise his face from his hands.
The man had the look of someone who did not have anything better to do at that moment. He said to Augustus, “Open your mouth.” He himself did not own any slaves but had been to enough auctions to know that having a slave open his mouth was one of the first things a potential buyer did.
Augustus mumbled and put his open hand to the back of his ear. He mumbled some more.
“Why, hell, this nigger’s deaf and dumb.”
“The devil you say?” Darcy said.
“The devil he say, Marse?” Stennis said.
“I tell you he can’t hear and he can’t talk. Can you?” the man said to Augustus, who looked at him expressionless, his hand still to the back of his ear. “What kinda flesh you tryin to peddle, mister?”
“No no. He hear, he talk,” Darcy said. “He was talkin and hearin in Virginia. He was talkin and hearin in North Carolina. He can hear and he can talk, I’m tellin you.” Then, to Augustus, “Open your mouth and tell this white man howdy, tell him that it’s a good goddamn afternoon.”
Augustus mumbled and put the other hand to the back of his other ear. The white man looked from Augustus to Darcy and then to Stennis. “Well, it must not be a good goddamn afternoon cause he ain’t tellin me so.”
“He ain’t deaf and dumb. You got my word on that,” Darcy said. “Can’t he talk, Stennis?”
“Yes, Master. He can talk. He can talk clear as a bird singin in the tree, clear as-”
“All right, Stennis, thas anough of that. I wouldn’t lie to you, mister.”
“I don’t want a deaf-and-dumb nigger. I want a whole nigger, top to bottom.”
The man turned to go and Darcy pulled at his sleeve. The man said, “Unhand me, sir, or I will hand you to God.” Stennis grumbled loudly. Darcy stepped back and the man went away. Darcy said to Stennis, “You know better than to bark at a white man, even one thas an unwillin customer.”
He turned on Augustus and poked him in the chest with two of his fingers. “What is the gallumpin about you, nigger? You ain’t no more deaf and dumb than Stennis is. What is the gallumpin?” Augustus said nothing. “You done lost your hearin here in South Carolina, that it? Lost your tongue, too, huh? What did you lose in North Carolina? Your pecker? And Virginia, your brain, what little there is of it? And what it gonna be in Georgia? Your arms? And then your legs in Alabama and Mississippi, if we git that far? Just wastin away with every state we come to. That it?” Darcy looked at Stennis. “I bet if we got him to Texas, he’d be gone altogether, Stennis. Just a puff of nothin by the time we got to Texas. And wouldn’t that be a shame? That would be a damn shame. Cause they don’t pay a whole helluva lot for a ghost nigger in Texas.”
“What we gon do?” Stennis said.
“We gon carry on, Stennis. We gon carry on till all the birds fall from the trees.” He spat, then picked up the foot of one of the dead beavers hanging from his chest and inhaled it deeply. “Tennessee is a good place to be this time of the year, Stennis. The air will carry you along, wherever you wanna go.” He dropped the beaver’s foot and poked Augustus again. “And we gon sell this here nigger if I have to throw in my father and grandfather and his father with the bargain. Les go.” Stennis yanked on Augustus’s chain, picked him up and tossed him into the wagon. Darcy picked up another beaver foot and most of the leg and inhaled deeply again. “The air of Tennessee will cure all that ails you, Stennis.”
“I can smell it from here, boss.”
In Charleston they sold Willis for $325. Darcy would have gotten $400 but the white man and his wife, both schoolteachers, were suspicious of the papers Darcy had on Willis. Holding the papers, the woman said that her father had been in the slave business and so she knew that no price was eternal. “Three hundred and twenty-five,” she said, and her husband repeated what she said. “I was a free man in Virginia,” Willis said quietly to the teachers after the price had been agreed upon. Darcy laughed. “He keep saying that,” Darcy said, snickering. “Virginia a beautiful place. We all feel free there. It’s God’s parlor, but he forgets this ain’t Virginia.” He was implying something unkind about South Carolina, but the teachers did not seem to notice. As Darcy and the teachers stood outside the bank and Darcy counted the money, Willis said to Augustus, “I be seein you. I be seein you in the bye and bye.” Augustus said, “And I’ll see you, Willis. I’ll see you in the bye and bye. I promise.”
In Winifred and John Skiffington’s parlor there was a wondrous-looking bookcase, lovely oak, a lion’s growling face at each edge of the top ends, three shelves, a secondhand item made by Augustus Townsend not long after Augustus bought his freedom. He had first thought he would keep it for himself and the family he would buy out of slavery, though none of them could read then. (He and Mildred would never learn to read.) He would keep it as a kind of symbol for his determination to get them. But then he realized that what he could get for the bookcase would bring his wife and child closer to him, so he put a price on it. Fifteen dollars. It had been originally sold to a man of two slaves who lost his sight and so, as he told Skiffington, lost his hunger and thirst for books. Skiffington bought it for five dollars.
Aside from the Bible, Skiffington was not much of a reader, which was not the case with Winifred. She had read so much, her husband once said, she could be a schoolteacher. All the shelves of that secondhand bookcase were full, primarily with books she had brought down from Philadelphia. Skiffington had asked that she not teach Minerva to read, but she had not been able to help herself. She had asked only that Minerva not let anyone see her reading.
Among Winifred’s treasures on the first shelf of the bookcase were Shakespeare’s complete plays in two volumes, a present from her parents, and Washington Irving’s Sketch Book, a present from Skiffington when he asked her to marry him. Irving’s book was in red leather, a beautiful second edition published in London in 1821. After supper the Skiffingtons, including John’s father, would gather in the parlor and Winifred would pick something from the bookcase and read. Skiffington himself was partial to Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle.” “You’ll wear it out, John,” Winifred would say. “You will drain all the freshness out of it.” To coax her, he would begin, “Rip Van Winkle, a posthumous writing of Diedrich Knickerbocker.”
Skiffington thought of “old Rip” when he saw the man on the steps leading up from the street to the jail. The hair on the man’s face was wild and quite abundant, and as Skiffington got closer he made out the eyes and nose and mouth poking through the hair. Only the hair told him it was a white man, because the skin was too dirty to bear witness to that. He could have been one of the mountain men who lived alone and came down every now and again just to hear human voices. The man stood up several yards before Skiffington got to the jail and he stood firm on his two feet, testifying that whatever the dirt and the hair said about him, there was a heart and a mind ready to say something different.
“John,” Counsel Skiffington said.
Skiffington stopped with one foot on the steps and the other still in the street. He studied the man for more than a minute and when the man said his name again, Skiffington said, “Counsel, that you?” He smiled and extended his hand. He had heard thirdhand that Counsel had fallen into the blaze he created at A Child’s Dream in North Carolina just after he had shot himself in the head. The bank Counsel owed had actually started that story in its attempt to provide some conclusion to the whole Counsel Skiffington affair. Among dozens of burnt bodies, who would know that one wasn’t the master of the plantation?
“It’s me,” Counsel said. “It’s me and I think I can say that and mean it.” They went on shaking hands and would have embraced but the cousins had never had that kind of love. Counsel had arrived late in the night with a man who had picked him up in Roanoke. The man was leading two wagonloads of goods-from cloth to bullets to books-to northern Virginia. Counsel had intended to accept free passage all the way to the man’s destination, but the God he found in Texas told him he might as well stop and see what might happen with John Skiffington.
“Counsel, I took you for dead,” Skiffington said. “Winifred and I took you and everybody for dead, that’s what we heard.”
“Everybody is, John. I suppose I was, too. But now I’m standing here and telling you I’m not.”
“Let me take you home to Winifred, get you cleaned up.”
“I don’t think I’m fit to meet any womenkind,” Counsel said. “Especially not one I’m related to.”
“Mrs. Skiffington wouldn’t mind.”
“I would, John. I would,” and Counsel remembered that the world had always called his wife Mrs. Skiffington. “I would mind. Maybe if you could spare me something so I could put up at the boardinghouse, I might be presentable in a day or two. A bath, some meals, and I’ll be a man ready for civilized society again.”
“There’s nothing wrong with you, but if the boardinghouse is what you want, then that is what I’ll give you.” They went two streets over and Skiffington paid for three nights at the boardinghouse.
He came by about noon and he and Counsel took dinner in the house’s small dining room. Counsel had bathed and shaved, and as he ate, the man John Skiffington loved but had had so much trouble with began to emerge. During the meal, Counsel said that he had been practically everywhere and now he did not know what to do with himself. By the end of the meal, Skiffington was asking Counsel if he wanted to be his deputy.
“You always struck me as a man who wanted the job all to himself,” Counsel said, drinking coffee. “Or that’s what I got from Belle reading Winifred’s letters to me. John Skiffington could do everything alone.”
“There gets to be more to be done. It wouldn’t hurt to have someone standing sharp at my back. Family is good for that. Good for backing you up.”
“I’ll do whatever I can.”
Counsel came to live in Skiffington’s house, shared a room and bed with Carl Skiffington, John’s father. Though he said nothing to anyone, Counsel thought himself entitled to the room that had always been Minerva’s. He did not understand why a slave girl should be put above him. A slave he himself had once owned. He suspected that there was more between her and Skiffington and that her own room was just one thing the girl had managed to wheedle out of his cousin. He had seen other white men fall prey, so why not a man who claimed so much to walk with God? After his first month’s pay, Counsel moved back to the boardinghouse, and the woman that owned the place charged him less than the other boarders, because he was the law and because he had suffered tragedies in North Carolina.
Mildred Townsend came out to the road in the morning and the evening every day after they took Augustus and waited for nearly a half hour. She knew that Augustus sometimes took on unexpected jobs when he was away from home and forgot to send word back to her that he would be home before long. At the end of each half hour she would raise her arms up high, her fingers extended, and she would feel Augustus’s spirit flow into the tips of her fingers and she would know that he was on his way. She did not worry the first week or for most of the second week. “I’ll give that man pure hell when he do show up,” she said to their dog, who came out to the road with her and waited beside her the whole time. “And you help me, huh? You help me give him pure hell.” She and Augustus had been married for more than thirty-five years, and she trusted him to be somewhere safe. She knew that with their only child gone, her husband would not do anything to put more suffering in her heart. It would be toward the end of that second week that she would go to Caldonia and they, with Fern Elston the teacher, would go to Skiffington, who would be away. But Counsel, his new deputy, would be there in the jail.
About a week after South Carolina, outside of McRae, Georgia, they camped and after Stennis had crushed up some food for Darcy, who had but two teeth in his head, Stennis fed Augustus and settled him down at an apple tree.
Augustus said to Stennis before he went to Darcy, “I owe you the same licks that you gave me back in Virginia. I want you to know I be owin you good.”
“I spect everything cost somethin, even some licks from way back in Virginia.”
“And when I come for you, you gon know it,” Augustus said.
“I done figured that in the cost of my business, too.”
“I wanna to go home,” Augustus said. “I wanna go home and I think you know the way to help me.”
“We all wanna go home.”
“I want to go home.”
Stennis noted that these were the first words Augustus had spoken since the deaf-mute stunt in South Carolina. “I see you back to talkin again.”
“I ain’t had nothin to say.”
Stennis checked the chains again. “You have a good night.”
“Let me just slip away,” Augustus said.
“He would know that I the one that opened the door for you.”
“Then come with me. We can go together. Us together.”
“That ain’t in my power.”
“I say it is.”
“It just ain’t. He be my bread and butter. Jam, too.”
“Back home,” Augustus said, “I be my own bread and butter.”
Stennis sighed. “I can see that.” He stood up. “I can see that with my own two eyes.”
Darcy shouted, “Stennis! Stennis! Where you at?”
“Over here, Marse.” Stennis began walking away.
“Just let me slip away.”
“Well, come on then. Come here and rub my feet.”
The morning after Caldonia Townsend made love to Moses her overseer for the first time, she woke about dawn and sat up in her bed and watched the sun come up. She had thought she would not sleep very well, but the night had been kind and she slept many hours without disturbance once sleep did arrive. She had had a dream just before waking of being in a house smaller than her own, a house she had to share with a thousand others. As she sat watching the sun she tried to remember more about the dream. Nothing came to her except the memory of someone in the dream saying that people in the attic were burning other people. The house Henry had built had no attic. She always slept with the curtains open, something Henry had gotten used to. Who else in this world could accept sleeping with the curtains open? she thought and raised her knees to her chin. She felt no guilt about Moses, which surprised her. Someone down in the fields, a woman, was singing. She soon realized that the woman was Celeste. It was not a sad song Celeste was singing and it was not a happy song, just melodious words to fill the silence that would otherwise be claimed by the songs of the birds. The room had been dark when she first opened her eyes, but as the sun rose and rose, it took Celeste’s song and carried it with the light to every corner of the room, and little by little the stiffness of sleep went out of Caldonia and she stretched and yawned and wondered what in the end she would do about Moses. She did not think of him the way she thought of Henry Townsend the first morning after she met him. That morning she had gotten out of bed, afraid and weakend by the fear that she would not ever have the pleasure of seeing Henry again. Had she known that he had had similar feelings, she would have had the strength she had this morning as Celeste’s song came to her one clear and undeniable word at a time.
She dressed and went out into the hall where the sun, even with a window at each end of the hall, was taking its time getting to. She heard Loretta stirring in her own room near the stairs but Caldonia did not knock and tell her maid to accompany her. In the kitchen, Zeddie the cook was at the stove and her husband Bennett was stacking wood in the wood box. “Missus,” Zeddie said, “what can I get you for your breakfast?” “Nothing just yet,” Caldonia said and opened the back door. “That air got a few teeth in it this mornin,” Bennett said. “You want me to get you a coat?” “No, I’m fine,” Caldonia said and went out and closed the door behind her.
The air did indeed have teeth in it, but she warmed as she walked to the cemetery with its one occupant. The mound of dirt had settled even more since her last visit. A tombstone had been ordered, but the man had said that it might take a month for it to be delivered. Standing at the foot of Henry’s grave, she wished she had brought flowers from her garden. “Am I forgiven?” she said. The flowers from her last visit, just two days before, still had some vigor in them, and they were atop flowers from four days before that were browning and becoming one with the soil. “I still am your wife, so am I forgiven?”
Moses came to her that evening and she gave him no indication that he was to rise from the chair and come to her. So he talked of the slaves’ work from the wing chair, hair combed and the not-so-new-anymore shirt and pants clinging to him because the sweat had come even before he had set one foot in the kitchen. He had hoped that by having her again they would cross an irrevocable threshold. But there were no tears and no hint that she wanted him, so he sat in sweat and fumbled through a recitation of their preparations for harvest. Had he not been her slave, he might have gotten up and went to her just on the authority of last night. But the sun did not rise very high in Moses’s life, and it was only one day at a time and no one day was kin to the next.
“Tell Loretta to come in,” Caldonia said and he got up and left the room. He had not been out and down the back steps when she regretted sending him away. What would have been the harm in letting him hold me? she thought as Loretta asked if she might want coffee and a little pie before she went to bed.
As arranged earlier, she had Fern, her brother Calvin, and Dora and Louis, William Robbins’s children, to supper the following evening. Roasted chicken, one of Zeddie’s specialties, and the pumpkin soup that Fern was fond of. Fern, who had now owned Jebediah Dickinson for some weeks, had little to say, which was unusual for the loquacious teacher among three of her former students who saw her as one of the primary influences in their lives. When she did speak, it was generally about her troubles with an “obstreperous” slave who insisted on calling himself Jebediah Dickinson, even though his former master said he was really just Jebediah and Jebediah alone. “Dickinson,” the former master had said, “was stolen from my dead wife.” Everyone at the table noted that Fern was not herself, but they passed it off because they loved her.
“With him there,” she said after supper, “I feel as if I belong to him, that I am his property.” The young people laughed to hear her say something so extraordinary. They were all members of a free Negro class that, while not having the power of some whites, had been brought up to believe that they were rulers waiting in the wings. They were much better than the majority of white people, and it was only a matter of time before those white people came to realize that.
“Why don’t you sell him off?” Dora asked.
“I am afraid that all of Virginia knows him the way I know him and selling him would cost me more than I have already paid.” That made no sense to the rest of them, and they blamed it on the fact that Fern had had a glass of port, which was also not like her.
“Sell him off down the river, as they say,” Louis said.
“He would return,” Fern said, “repeat himself like a bad meal. That is just my poor metaphor for the evening, dear Caldonia. It is not a statement about our grand evening this night. I trust you understand my state of mind, dear Caldonia.”
“I do,” Caldonia said. “Zeddie could not do wrong with food if she were blind and without hands.”
“Precisely,” Fern said.
“Mrs. Elston,” Calvin said, “why not free him and send him on his way? Might that not be cheaper in the long run?”
“I have considered that. But I believe he has become a kind of debt inherited from my beloved husband. He is mine now and freeing him seems out of the question.” She did not say that freeing a slave was not in her nature. Someone had once told her of a white woman in South Carolina who had freed her slaves after the death of her husband, and one of them had returned and killed the woman.
“Fern, it will sort itself out,” Caldonia said. The oldest of the students, she had become a confidante of Fern’s and she alone was allowed to call her by her first name. It was not a privilege the others coveted.
“I fear it will,” Fern said and drank the last drop in her glass. “Have I had more port than I am allowed, dear Caldonia? Have I had my share?”
“In this house you are allowed all the port your soul can hold. You know that.”
“One forgets when the mind becomes cluttered.”
“Bennett?” Caldonia said.
Bennett appeared and filled Fern’s glass. He went to Caldonia’s side and whispered to her that Moses had been waiting in the kitchen “to tell you bout this and this.”
She thought she might go to him and tell him she would see him tomorrow, but what Fern had been saying about the slave with two names entered her mind, and she told Bennett to tell Moses that the news of the day could wait unless there was something requiring her attention. She added that she was entertaining guests. Bennett delivered this in his own way, and Moses left for his cabin. Priscilla, his wife, said she had something for him to eat but he told her in as gentle a way as he could that he was not hungry and hoped that would be the end of it. She knew enough to read his mind, and she and her son sat before the hearth and played jack-a-rocks with their collection of pebbles. The boy had been improving, having found that if he threw the pebbles so that they bunched, he had a better chance of beating his mother. Moses, hearing them at play, was close to going out to the woods but he feared he was now sharing the place with Alice. Instead, he went to the equipment shed and sharpened hoes until the lantern light began to fail and his arms ached.
Fern’s mood seemed to improve with the second glass of port, and there was no more talk of the slave Jebediah Dickinson. “I have,” she began not long after Bennett had replaced the candles, “been receiving so many pamphlets about this abolition business. Where they get my name, I will never know.”
“What do you think, Mrs. Elston?” Dora said.
“I realized all over again that if I were in bondage I would slash my master’s throat on the first day. I wonder why they all have not risen up and done that.” She sipped.
“The power of the state would crush them to dust,” Louis said. He spoke, as always, not because he had any well-considered views on an issue, but to impress the women around him, and he was now at a point where the woman he most wanted to impress was Caldonia. He had come to Fern’s classes after Caldonia had completed several years of her education, so she had not had much time to learn who he was. And Calvin had said little about him to her, so in many ways they were still strangers to one another. “The Commonwealth would put an end to it right quick.”
“The state would hesitate,” Calvin said. “It wouldn’t want to lose its own people, so many fine white people, as well as all the people the state depends on to work the fields and do all the other work that helps make Virginia the great Commonwealth.”
“Are you two men talking of war?” Dora said.
“Do you know it by some other name?” Louis said.
Dora laughed. “Slaves against masters. Try to place that image in your head, and then follow that with the image of all the slaves lying dead.”
“I have,” Fern said. “I have indeed.” She was thinking of the boldness with which Jebediah walked away whenever he had a mind to. “The only question for us, around this blessed table, is which side should we choose. I suppose that is what those pamphlets want me to do. Choose my side.”
“Have you?” Caldonia said.
“In my feeble way I believe I have,” Fern said. “I do not think I would fare very well as a dressmaker’s apprentice. ‘Yessum’ and ‘Yessuh’ do not come easily from my mouth. My hands, my body, they fear the dirt of the field.”
“You could teach even more,” Louis said. “You could teach all the time.”
“The light of teaching is slowly going out for me.”
“That comes from having bad pupils,” Caldonia said and the five of them laughed. Fern thought she might have a third glass of port, but as she held the empty glass in her hand, the effects of the first two drinks took firm hold and she smiled at the glass and told herself that two would do for the evening. Since Jebediah arrived her husband had been staying home, but nothing was the same. I am… I am this night a dutiful wife. This night…
“I would leave all of this with any war,” Calvin said.
“You wouldn’t help out the precious slaves?” Louis said.
“Well, now that you say it, now that you put the matter out there, I think I would.”
Caldonia laughed. “Do you think Mama would let you take up arms against her?” In their minds they all saw Maude-arms folded, foot tapping in an exasperated manner-and laughed.
“I would do it with her back turned.” Calvin laughed.
“A bullet in your poor mama’s back, Calvin, how nice?” Dora said.
“You said bullet. I love her too much to do anything more harmful than say no. Besides, my mother lives with a high brick wall at her back. Nothing could penetrate that.” When his mother was ill for all those years, Calvin slept many nights on the floor beside her bed.
“Fine talk for an hour of digestion,” Fern said. “What school taught all of you this?”
“A difficult establishment in Manchester, Virginia.” Louis was looking across the table at his sister, and as he did his traveling eye caught hold of a floating piece of dust and followed it before he blinked.
Her guests slept there that night. In the morning, not long after breakfast, Caldonia and Calvin walked Dora and Louis out to the verandah, where Louis hugged her unexpectedly. “Your hospitality is without equal,” he said, not at all trying to impress her. “The credit,” Caldonia said, “goes to my guests.” The day, much, much later, when Louis asked her to marry him, he would say he had feared asking because he did not think he was worthy. “We are all worthy of one another,” Caldonia would say.
Dora and Louis rode off on their horses. Fern slept late and did not leave until late afternoon. Calvin stayed another night and so was there when Moses came that evening. Bennett came into the parlor to tell Caldonia her overseer was there. She rose.
“What is it?” Calvin asked.
“Nothing of consequence,” she said, excusing herself and going ahead of Bennett out to the kitchen.
“Missus, I just wanted to let you know bout the day, is all,” Moses said as soon as she entered. She did not dismiss Bennett.
“I am entertaining my brother,” she said, walking up to within a foot of him. She wished to see him, her words and posture said, but this was the best she could do for now. “You can tell me all tomorrow evening. Now go home and get a good night’s rest. I know how hard you work.” He nodded and left.
“The responsibilities are coming in on you now, it seems,” Calvin said when she returned.
“One by one,” she said.
“You could be happy with me in New York. New land, new air. We could be happy there. The burdens would fall off our shoulders, Caldonia.”
“Calvin, you have only yourself and whatever is on your back. I have the responsibility of so many people. Adults and children. I cannot choose not to have that. My husband has built something here, and now it is mine and I can’t abandon that for a foreign land.”
Calvin said nothing. He was in the chair Moses always sat in. He wanted to say that she could abandon all but by now he was losing faith in being able to persuade anyone of anything. She could not see any of those thirty or so human beings living as free people any more than he could see from Virginia all that the frozen dog in the New York photograph was seeing.
She did not want him to go the next day and she said so. She had found that with her people about-and she counted Fern and Dora and Louis in this-she was more capable of facing the world. He had business in Richmond, Calvin said, but when he returned, he would stay with her for a longer time.
She told Moses that evening she did not want to hear anything about the dull labors of the day and he sat trying to think up one more tale about Henry. She got up after a long time and sat on his lap, kissed him. She did not allow him to make love to her that evening, but when he came back the next evening, she did. “It has been hard without you,” she said to him. “It was hard for me, Missus,” he said. When he said that, they were done and partially clothed on the floor, and his words caused her to wonder if Virginia had a law forbidding such things between a colored woman and a colored man who was her slave. Was this a kind of miscegenation? she wondered. A white woman in Bristol had been whipped for such an offense, and her slave was hanged from a tree in what passed for the town square. Three hundred people had come to see it, the whipping and the hanging, the former in the morning and the latter in the afternoon. People brought their children, their infants, who slept through most of the activities. It had happened a year ago but the news had only recently arrived in Manchester.
“Are you going to come back tomorrow?” she asked after she had risen from the floor.
“Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am, I will.”
He left and she said to herself in the moment before Loretta entered, “I love Moses. I love Moses with his one name.” But when she saw Loretta, the words did not make as much sense. “I am ready for bed,” she said, and that made the greatest of sense. Before going to bed, she washed her insides with vinegar and the soap her slaves made for everyone. Hers, however, was made with a dash of perfume that Loretta supplied to the soap makers. In Bristol, the authorities claimed the white woman had been with child. No word of mouth or the newspaper account said what had become of the child.
That evening was the first time Moses would think that his wife and child could not live in the same world with him and Caldonia. Had they made love in silence, as before, he would not have begun to think beyond himself. But she had spoken of tomorrow, and that meant more tomorrows after that. Where did a slave wife and a slave son fit in with a man who was on his way to being freed and then marrying a free woman? On his way to becoming Mr. Townsend?
He came down from Caldonia’s house that evening and stood at the entrance to the lane. Where does a man put a family he does not need?
Alice came out of her cabin and if she was surprised to see him, she did not let on. But she did not chant, she did not dance.
“Where you goin?” he asked. He knew more about her than he knew even three weeks ago, and though she had acknowledged nothing, he felt that she was aware that she had less of the world than before. The night no longer just held her in her wanderings; it now held him following after her. Alice strode by him and he turned and took hold of her arm. “You answer me when I be talkin to you.”
“Nowhere,” she said. The simplicity of a clear answer hit them both and they said nothing until they heard Elias and Stamford laugh as they came from the barn and went to their cabins. Both men were carrying lanterns.
“Thas more like it,” Moses said to Alice and released her. She went out to the path that would take her to the road.
He had expected her to take off that night and for her body to be delivered by the patrollers before morning, but she was at her cabin the next day.
The following evening he waited at her cabin door for her to come out. “I got a job for you,” he said, “and if you do it right, you won’t have to be nobody’s slave no more.” He had not made love to Caldonia that evening but his sky went up very high.
She wanted to chant, but the angels might not understand what she was saying with this overseer as her witness. I met a dead man layin in Massa lane… Maybe if she lifted her arms now, they would reward her for all that singing in the past and raise her up up to freedom. A man… A dead man is what it is… How could you forget that dead man? All her singing must be worth something. If she lifted her arms and wiggled her fingers, the angels might see her even in the dark with that overseer and pick her up like she was just somebody’s June bug. I met a dead woman laying way out there all the way in my dead Massa’s lane…
Moses said, “You go on, cause I got my eye on you. Got both my eyes on you.” He watched her go. “That mule be waitin for you in the mornin,” he said.
It was true, she thought as she stepped tentative feet onto the road, that the world had had eyes to see her, and even if the angels did take her now, the world would just reach up and pull her back. They don’t want you there, girl, so just come on back to us… She did not go far that night and turned around not long after passing the crossroads. The lane was all quiet but it was not as quiet as on all the other nights when her voice had been hoarse and her feet tired from all the walking and dancing. She entered her cabin and waited inside for the sound of it all coming to an end. Maybe if she had cared enough about everyone; maybe if she had shared; maybe if she had even believed that Delphie and Cassandra would want to go and sing to the angels with her. Nothing came but the sounds of her own heart and she went down to her knees and crawled to her pallet a few feet away from those of Delphie and Cassandra. Maybe she had waited far too long, and in waiting the train and the people had waved as they went by her. Who knew that there had never been enough time? Who knew that God had parceled out time the way Bennett and Moses parceled out the meal and flour and molasses? Thas gotta last so yall be careful how you eat… On the last plantation she had been on, a woman had jumped into the well, vowing to swim her way home. And she had done it, too, without a blessing from a mule kick. Why had she held back in just walking home? Now, that mule might want to take back his kick. You ain’t usin it, now give it here…
Two mornings later, Thursday, Caldonia told Loretta, who was to tell Zeddie, that she would supper with Moses in the kitchen. Loretta was not a woman to ask her mistress to repeat anything she said, but Zeddie wanted to know if Loretta was going around with ears too dirty to hear right. Loretta funned no one and when Zeddie saw she had the same face as on every morning, she said, “Tell her I get everything ready for her and the overseer.”
The meal was over and done with rather quickly because they did not talk. He had never sat at a table such as that one and had a full plate put before him. He had not known what to do and she saw this and took him away from the table.
They did not make love but he went back to the lane with the same amount of joy. He knocked at Alice’s cabin and took her outside, over to the side of the barn, and told her he was setting her free, that he had the power to do it. She said nothing and he laughed because he knew she was thinking this was an overseer’s trick. “You just be ready to go on Saturday night. Ain’t that a good time to go, Saturday? With all that lazy Sunday to go? Well, ain’t it?”
“I don’t know bout goin nowhere,” she said. “I’m just Alice on Marse Henry’s plantation, thas all I know. Marse Henry and Missus Caldonia Townsend in Manchester County, Virginia.”
He laughed again. “Henry dead. I put him in the ground myself and covered him up.” She could see that he was not the man fumbling and hugging himself in the forest, just one more sad sight as she mapped her way again and again through the night. No slave, not even the overseer, spoke the master’s name without calling him the master first, and Moses was doing that and not caring who in the night could hear him. Then he said, “And I want you to take my wife and boy with you,” and she began to feel that he was not just trying to trick her.
“Take Priscilla and Jamie? Take em, too?” The boy was fat and the woman was weighed down with worshiping her husband and her mistress.
He nodded. “Just take em along with you. Don’t say you don’t know what you doin. You ain’t foolin me goin all over Robin Hood’s barn, girl. I know you. I know what you been up to.”
“I ain’t been up to nothin. I’m just Alice, I told you. Over here on Marse Henry’s plantation in Manchester County, Virginia.” No one ever again drank out of the well the woman dove into to swim home. It had been the one used by the white people, and even after they had their new one dug, they wouldn’t let the Negroes use the well the slave woman swam home in. Every slave on the place wanted to taste the water that gave a woman the power of a fish, but the white people bricked over the well. Some said they poisoned the water before they did it.
“You listen after my words or I’ll see to it you never run around like you been doin.”
That night Moses told his family that he was sending them into freedom and that he would soon follow. “I don’t know how to get to freedom,” Priscilla said. “Me neither,” the boy said.
“Alice’ll take you, and yall can make a place for me.” Moses stood just inside the closed door.
“Alice? What is Alice, Moses? What is she? Her left hand would get lost tryin to find her right hand. What can Alice do?” Priscilla had been preparing to feed the hearth fire when her husband entered. Now she stood up with the wood pieces in her arms. The fire first wavered, then leaned toward the woman as wind came down the chimney and moved toward the bottom of the door.
“She knows more than you think, woman. She does. Now you just gon haveta trust me on this, Priscilla. You gon haveta trust that I can get yall to the other side.”
Priscilla said, “Lord, Moses, why you throwin us away like this?”
“It ain’t that,” Moses said. “I’m makin the way good for yall on this side, thas all I’m tryin to do.” Priscilla trembled and the wood fell from her arms. “Just trust Alice to know what to do,” he said.
“Why can’t you just come on with us now, Moses?” There was a chasm and he was telling her that it was an easy thing for her to jump, that she should simply make the jump to this freedom thing that wouldn’t even include him at first. He was not a good husband but he was all she had. Some women had no husbands or husbands off on another plantation, not right by them every night, breathing and fighting with the world in their sleep.
“Pa, you be comin long later?” Jamie said.
“I be there,” Moses said.
They said no more, but all the next day Priscilla tarried in her furrows and so Moses had to go to her and tell her to do right by her work. “I don’t wanna get after you again,” he said.
More than a mile from the plantation, that Saturday night, the four of them came to a stretch of woods that ended three miles later on William Robbins’s plantation. Alice had said nothing to Moses, but Saturday was a day many of the patrollers were liable to have been drinking. She did not know it but the sheriff paid them on Saturday, and while he didn’t forbid it, he didn’t like them working on Sundays, the Lord’s day, a day of rest. So the patrollers tended to start their Sundays way before Saturday midnight.
In the woods, Priscilla began crying. “Moses, why can’t you come now? Please, Moses, please.”
Alice stepped up to her and slapped Priscilla twice. Moses said nothing and Jamie said nothing. Who was this new woman, who was this Alice acting like this in the night? She said, “You just stop all that cryin right now. I won’t have it. Not one tear ever watered my thirst, and it won’t water yours neither. So stop it all right now.”
“It ain’t so bad, Mama,” Jamie said. “We can make it. See.” And the boy ran off for several yards and returned, then ran back and returned again. He stood running in place. “We can make it, Mama.”
“Heed that boy,” Alice said to Priscilla. “You better heed that boy. Moses, you hold off tellin long as you can.” In the dark of the woods, they could not see faces straight on, so the only way anyone could see a person was to stare at something just to the side. Only then did a face come clear. Alice looked at the tree next to Moses. “If they say they see you on the other side, then they know better than I do.”
To look at Alice, he looked at his son beside her. “Then I’ll see yall.”
“Moses,” Priscilla said, “don’t you forget me.”
Alice took Priscilla by the hand and the three disappeared into the woods, and no amount of looking left or right could give Moses a picture of them. He heard what he thought was them, but he had heard the same sounds when alone with himself in that other woods. When there was quiet, he began to wonder what would happen if they were caught. Moses helped us do it… He looked behind him, and the sounds started up again. Moses, why would you do this when I trusted you? Why would you take our future and just throw it away? He clenched and unclenched his hands. He knew the way back home, but could he reach them way out there somewhere and still find his way back? Oh, Moses, why? We had this and that and this and that, so why, Moses? He followed them, walking at first, then running, one arm before him to keep the low-hanging branches from hitting him in the face.
He waited until just after the noon hour to report to the house. His heart had beat furiously all night and he had hoped for relief as the sun rose, but the heart refused. In the kitchen, he told Caldonia, as Loretta and Zeddie and Bennett looked on, that Priscilla and the boy had left sometime during the night while he was sleeping. He had gone to Alice’s cabin, he said, and found that she had not returned from her wandering.
Caldonia was not worried and told him the patrollers would come upon them and return them. “They had wandered off,” she said. Alice was just crazy enough to have gotten lost.
When there was no sign of them by nightfall, she told Bennett she wanted him to go to the sheriff the next day, Monday, and report the “disappearance” of three slaves. Escaping was in a very distant part of her mind, given the three people-and no man-involved, but perhaps some harm had come to them. Patrollers may have taken advantage of the women and killed them all to cover the crime. But why kill them if the crime was only rape? Raping a slave would not bring the law down on them. In many minds, raping a slave was not even a crime. Killing property was the greater crime. She wrote Bennett a pass, then she wrote a letter explaining to Sheriff Skiffington what she knew. She told Moses to keep an eye on everyone until the matter could be straightened out. At first she put some blame on him since his wife and child were two of the missing, but her disappointment did not last very long.
Bennett found Skiffington talking to Counsel in front of the jail, and the more Bennett added to what was in the letter, the more Skiffington suspected Moses of something. He didn’t know a great deal about the Townsend place and faulted himself as sheriff of the whole realm. He left Counsel and rode out with Bennett to the plantation. He had faith in his patrollers, that they would not let three pieces of property get by them. So the slaves were somewhere in the county. If alive, they could be back before sundown. And if dead, it could be wolves or bears or mountain lions.
Bennett took care of Skiffington’s horse and Zeddie led him into the parlor where Caldonia stood when he entered the room. He took off his hat and said, as he had at the funeral, that he was sorry about her husband.
“I don’t know where they could have gotten to,” Caldonia said. No one sat.
“I understand the Alice one wasn’t comfortable in her own head.”
“No, and Priscilla would no more leave this plantation than I would, sheriff.”
“How much were they worth?”
“How much were the three slaves worth? How much would you get if you were to sell them? On the market.”
“Oh, I don’t know. My husband would have known just like that, but I can’t say I kept up with such matters. I’m sorry.”
“It doesn’t matter very much. How long that overseer and her been married?”
“I’d say about ten years,” Caldonia said. It was the first time she had fully realized that she had been making love to another woman’s husband. Priscilla had always been there and yet she had been on the other side of the earth, married to a different man.
“Ten years is a long time,” Skiffington said. Caldonia said nothing but looked slightly puzzled. When he asked about Moses, she offered to have him brought to the house but he told her he would go out to meet him.
Heading to the fields, he remembered the slave man and woman in his office, the man being sold that day to William Robbins and the woman being sold days later to someone else. We are together, the slave man kept saying. We are one… He came to a small rise that led down to the fields and could not make out the overseer because he was not on a horse looking down, but was just one among the working slaves. He went down the rise and called out that he wanted to see Moses. Moses rose up from the furrow and made his way to Skiffington.
Moses took off his hat and said good morning to Skiffington and the sheriff said good morning.
“You know where they might be?”
“No, sir. I woke yesterday and they was gone, all three just gone.”
“Were they there when you went to sleep?” More and more of the day Moses was sold in the jail was coming back to Skiffington.
“Yes, sir. But that Alice tend to wander, bein not in one piece the way she was. No harm by that. No harm by all that walkin about and such like. And sometimes my Priscilla and Jamie would just go to keep her company. They thought the world of Alice.” Elias would put a lie to most of that on Skiffington’s second visit. Moses continued building a story that Elias and others would tear down with just a few questions from Skiffington.
Finally, Skiffington told him to go on back to work and Moses set his hat on his head and returned. Skiffington would not remember in a few days who told him that Moses and his mistress had supper-“just like some man and his wife be eatin”-just before the slaves disappeared. He would remember that no one would ever report seeing buzzards in the sky to evidence killing by wolves or bears. He became convinced that the three were dead and that someone had had to put the dead in the ground to deprive the buzzards. He watched Moses, who overcame the need to turn and look back at the sheriff, and Skiffington knew any slave would want to leave the field and never return. It was in watching Moses walk away that he began to suspect him of murder. He could not understand why until he heard he had had supper with Caldonia. But why kill when all that was required was for him to step out of the cabin door, wipe his hands clean of a wife and child, and step through the house door? And why hurt a child and a woman not of her own mind?
He watched as Moses went back to the row he had been in and picked up his bag and became one with all around him, the land and its bounty and the slaves leaning over and picking and stepping. The crows hovered above them. Skiffington could see that the birds were high enough to avoid a hand but not high enough to escape a thrown stone. Moses had looked him straight in the eye the whole time, not once blinking or looking away. There was a reason God had made telling the truth one of his commandments; lying had the power to be a high wall to hide all the other transgressions. Skiffington considered Caldonia. He had heard of that white woman in Bristol who had slept with her slave. Bad business. But what the coloreds like Caldonia and Moses did among themselves was no crime in itself. Killing a slave for no reason was always a crime, before man, before God.
Two days later, evening, Skiffington heard a commotion out on the street and came to see what it was.
”Hey, John,” Barnum Kinsey, the patroller, said from atop his horse, the old thing his father-in-law had given him. Even before he reached him, Skiffington could tell that Barnum had been drinking, and he had drunk a lot. It had been more than two weeks since Augustus Townsend had been sold back into slavery. Barnum’s wife had had many sorrows but she had never regretted marrying him.
“Barnum?” Skiffington said.
The dry goods merchant had been trying unsuccessfully to shoo Barnum away from in front of his establishment but now that Skiffington was there, he left to close up for the night. Once the merchant went inside, the street was empty except for the two men, the horse Barnum was on, Skiffington’s tethered horse and a dog across the street that had lost its way.
“Hey, John. Nice evenin, huh?”
“Not a bad one, Barnum. You headin home?”
“Yes, John, I reckon I will. Soon. But I do have my patrollin.” He was quiet for a time, and while he was the dog got up from its haunches and went west. “I wanted to tell you somethin, and I have been workin my mind so the words will tumble out in a straight line. You know how that can be, John.”
“I do, Barnum. Just set them words one by one and they’ll do fine and we’ll get where we got to go.”
“Harvey Travis and Oden Peoples took Augustus Townsend and sold him. Harvey ate his free papers up, and then he sold him away, John. Thas all there is to it.”
“Sold Augustus? When was this?”
“Days ago maybe. Maybe a week. Time and me not friends anymore so a day can be like a month. Or a minute.” Barnum belched and seemed to be sobering with each word he spoke. “Man’s name was Darcy, that slave speculator you told us to look out for. Sold him for more money than I see at one time. Sold his mule, too, John. Sold that man’s mule. Had niggers in the back that he was probably tryin to sell. No tellin who they belong to.”
“Tellin me sooner might have done some good, Barnum. Sellin a free man is a crime and you should be there to stop it.”
“I know, John. I know all about that. You ain’t tellin me nothin I don’t already know.” The dog came back and stood in the middle of the street, then looked around. It trotted east. Barnum belched again. He shifted in the saddle. “I wish I was braver, John. I wish I was as brave as you.”
“You are, Barnum, and one day people will know that.”
“I wonder. I wonder.” He leaned forward. “Now I don’t want you to take me tellin you all this as my becomin a nigger kisser or somethin like that. It ain’t that. You know me, John. But they sold that Augustus and they sold his mule.” It was twilight and the stars were quite evident in the sky. The moon, still low, was behind Skiffington and only Barnum could see it.
“I know you, Barnum.”
“But he was a free and clear man, and the law said so. Augustus never hurt me, never said bad to me. What Harvey done was wrong. But tellin you don’t put me on the nigger side. I’m still on the white man side, John. I’m still standin with the white. God help me if you believe somethin else about me.” He shifted in the saddle once more. The moon was just above the horizon now, a large, dusty orange point, but Barnum did not raise his head high enough to see it. “It’s just that there should be a way for a body to say what is without somebody sayin he standin on the nigger side. A body should be able to stand under some… some kinda light and declare what he knows without retribution. There should be some kinda lantern, John, that we can stand under and say, ‘I know what I know and what I know is God’s truth,’ and then come from under the light and nobody make any big commotion bout what he said. He could say it and just get on about his business, and nobody would say, ‘He be stickin up for the nigger, he be stickin up for them Indians.’ The lantern of truth wouldn’t low them to say that. There should be that kinda light, John. I regret what happened to Augustus.”
“Yes, Barnum, I know.” The merchant came out of the store and tipped his hat to Skiffington and Skiffington nodded and the merchant went home.
“A man could stand under that light and talk the truth. You could hold the lantern with the light right from where you standin, John. Hold it so I could stand under it. And when nobody was talkin, was tellin the truth bout what they know, you could keep the lantern in the jail, John. Keep it safe in the jail, John.” Barnum closed his eyes, took off his hat, opened his eyes and studied the brim. “But don’t keep the lantern too near the bars, John, cause you don’t want the criminals touchin it and what not. You should write the president, you should write the delegate, and have em pass a law to have that lantern in every jail in the United States of America. I would back that law. God knows I would. I really would, John.”
“I would, too, Barnum,” Skiffington said. Barnum put his hat back on. “Now I want you to go home now. I don’t want you patrollin tonight. You rest up. You go home to Mrs. Kinsey and the chaps. Go straight home.” The dog came back and went west and did not return that night.
“I will, John. I’ll go home to Mrs. Kinsey and the chaps.” Barnum could see a burning lamp on the table he and his family had their meals on. He saw two more on the mantelpiece, and when he turned around in that room, he saw his wife, and the two lamps on the mantelpiece were reflected in her eyes. “I will, John.” Days before he and his family left the county forever, one of his sons, Matthew, found a map of America in a two-year-old newspaper. Matthew showed his father where they were going, took his father’s finger and traced the route from Virginia to Missouri. “A long way,” Barnum said. “Yep,” the boy said.
“Here,” Skiffington said, “stand there a little bit.” He went into the jail and returned with a small burlap sack no bigger than a puppy’s head. “Some sweets for them chaps, Barnum. Some horehound. A little peppermint for the chaps.”
“I appreciate that, John.”
“You go straight home now, Barnum.” He watched Barnum ride away. The candy had been for Winifred and Minerva, and maybe his father if he happened to be in the house. Now that the merchant was gone Skiffington would not be able to buy more until tomorrow. As for himself, his stomach did not permit him to have a sweet tooth.
The next morning he told Winifred that he might have to stay the night at Robbins’s place and she was not to worry. He then went to the telegraph office and sent long telegrams about Darcy and the wagon to sheriffs between Manchester and the North Carolina border. He knew what Darcy looked like and he mentioned the beaver pelts and that he was traveling with a Negro who may or may not be a slave. He also mentioned Augustus Townsend, “a free man and upstanding citizen of Manchester County.” “You sure you wanna say all this?” the telegraph man asked him. “I’m sure. Send every word. The county will pay.” “I ain’t worried about that, John.”
He went to the jail and told Counsel that he would be gone the rest of the day and that he was to handle matters until he returned the next day. “Want me along?” Counsel said. Skiffington said, “I think I can manage alone. Just keep it even here, will you, Counsel?”
He rode as hard as he could. He wondered why Mildred or no one else had come to him about Augustus being taken. He hit William Robbins’s place about one and could have used a good meal, but he went on. If he himself had been colored and had been somehow sold off, he would want someone to let a colored Winifred know, to let her know that there was hope for her. He passed the remains of Augustus’s wagon that Travis had burned but he didn’t know that it was what was left of Augustus. Toward three he reached Mildred’s place and knocked at the door but got no answer. She was not in the barn nor in the little workshop Augustus had set up next to the barn. He found her in the back, coming in from her garden. The dog was with her, and it went up to Skiffington and sniffed and then went on toward the house.
He took off his hat. “Mildred…”
“My husband dead, sheriff?” She had a basket of tomatoes and she sat it down and wiped the sweat from one side of her face, and as she wiped the other side, she said, “Is my husband gone?”
“No, not as I know. He was sold by a speculator.” There were still people in the county who believed tomatoes were poisonous but Mildred and Skiffington did not believe that.
“How can you sell a free man, sheriff?”
“Outside the law, Mildred. You go outside the law.”
“Outside. Inside. Outside. Inside.” She picked up her basket. “I don’t think Augustus was outside it. That wouldna been Augustus.”
“I will try to find him, Mildred, and bring him home to you. It is a crime what happened and the law will stand by that.”
“I know it will.”
“Why didn’t you tell me he was missing?”
She had been picking over the tomatoes and looked up quickly at him. “Me and Caldonia and Fern went to the jail and your deputy say he gon tell you all about it. He told me he was gonna let you know that Augustus was missin.”
He did not like telling Negroes about the failings of other white people, but he said, “He told me nothing, Mildred. I only heard of this last night.”
“From him? This late from him?”
“No, Barnum Kinsey told me.” He could see Counsel sitting at his desk, cleaning his gun and whistling. “I knew nothing, I can promise you that.”
“None a that matters anymore, sheriff.” She went by him and to the back door. The dog wanted to go in and she opened it for him and turned to Skiffington. The door shut on its own. “I had faith that he would come home. He could sometimes get caught up in fixin somethin and lose time and be late for days and days. I let that be cause I always knew he was safe. But your comin here is somethin else. I would rather have waited months for him to just ride on in then have you come here like this with what’s just plain bad news.”
“We will do what we can, Mildred.”
“I have a feelin it don’t matter anymore, sheriff. Nobody cares. Your deputy didn’t seem to care.”
“The law cares, Mildred. The law always cares.”
She looked at him and he blinked because he knew that she was closer to what was true than he was. “The law cares,” he said again. Mildred said nothing more and opened the door and went in. Skiffington put on his hat and went around the house and back to his horse. The horse was eating grass and Skiffington had to pull him away. He led him to the water trough, but that was not what the horse wanted so Skiffington let him eat grass again.
Mildred had come through the house and was now on the porch. “Augustus would not forgive me if I didn’t ask if you wanted a mouthful to eat.”
“No, I won’t trouble you no more,” Skiffington said. “I need to get back before it gets too late.” He thought of the pretty tomatoes; maybe there was bread, too. “I appreciate the offer.”
“Wouldn’t be no trouble. I got plenty.”
“I will sit and pass the time when I bring you good news about your husband,” he said. “The next time.”
She told him good day and went back into the house. The dog had been watching but did not move from the threshold.
Skiffington did not stop at the Robbins place on his way back to the town, but he did stop twice to read from his Bible. He had begun to think of Minerva again and he wanted the Bible to help him put it out of his heart. He didn’t sit down. He just stood in the road and read from the book while the horse, both times, wandered about. It had had its fill of grass at Mildred’s and so went here and there with the curiosity of a child. He read and read but could not concentrate.
Three weeks before, the morning after Minerva’s fifteenth birthday, Skiffington, going out to work, had seen her getting dressed in her room. She had apparently gone to dump her slops and had returned to finish dressing and left the door ajar, the way she had been doing it since a little girl. In the instant he saw her, her nightgown was pulled tight around her and the fullness of her body, from her breasts to her knees, showed through. She did not see him and he left without saying anything, but she had been on his mind ever since. He knew many a white man who had taken black women as their own, and among those men, he would have been thought normal. But he saw himself living in the company of God, who had married him to Winifred, and he believed God would abandon him if he took Minerva. And Winifred would discover what he had done, even if Minerva never said a word.
He put off reading the Bible as it was doing him no good and got to the jail about seven that night and the place was dark until he lit the lanterns. There were no messages from Counsel and so he suspected the day had gone without event. He had been uncertain about Counsel from the beginning. Now his faith in him had crumbled further. He brushed down his horse and left him in the barn in the back and walked home. Minerva was sitting in the porch swing and she waved to him and he felt all over again that feeling he had had the morning he saw her after her birthday. What good had all the praying done? Why should a man feel this way about someone who was like a daughter to his heart? “Howdy,” he said. She said, “You hungry?” “No. Where is Winifred?” “Inside sewing.” He went in and was suddenly pulled down by the weight of the day and the long ride. The tomatoes in Mildred’s basket were large and quite ripe. He would have liked one at that moment, but he knew his stomach would protest. The weight of the day pulled him down to Winifred in her chair and he sat on the floor beside her. She put her sewing in her lap. “I think your stomach could use something to eat,” she said. “No. Nothing.” “I say yes, Mr. Skiffington.” “Let me start with a little milk,” he said. “Fine,” she said. “Milk, then all the rest.”
He washed up. There was still the possibility of some word from the sheriffs all down the line. There was still that. But as he drank more and more of the milk, that hope went away. How could he punish Counsel and Harvey and Oden? He put the glass down and thought how a few sliced tomatoes with some salt and vinegar would give him whatever he needed now. A few sliced tomatoes laid out as pretty as you please on one of Winifred’s precious plates.
He went to the boardinghouse and stepped into Counsel’s room without knocking and found the owner sitting on Counsel’s bed. She had her shoes off and though she was clothed otherwise, she put her hand up to her neck, which was fully covered. She told Skiffington that Counsel was out in the back tending to his business. She put on her shoes and followed him downstairs.
Counsel was coming out of the privy. “John.”
“You get word that that freed man Augustus Townsend was missing?” Skiffington said before his cousin could close the privy door. “Counsel, you tell his wife and his daughter-in-law that you was going to tell me he was missing and then not tell me?”
“Augustus Townsend is the man’s name.”
“I might have heard, John, and just forgot. Niggers have stories about such from here until the end of time. Who can believe them?” The owner of the boardinghouse was standing up the three steps at the doorway. There was some light behind her in the kitchen but the light was not strong and it made her a poor silhouette. “You go on in now, Thomasina,” Counsel said. She turned away. The woman said, “I’ll be upstairs if you need me, Counsel.” The amount she charged him for room and board was nearly nothing now. She was a good woman, but she could not one day give him children and stand beside him the way Belle had stood beside him. She always cried and trembled after they made love. A woman long dry coming back to life. He had saved some money by being nice to her but not enough to buy what God had taken from him in North Carolina. “Besides, John, they were three niggers talking about another nigger. I thought you hired me to look after white people.”
“You were hired for the law’s sake.” It was not adultery, whatever there was between his cousin and the boardinghouse woman, Skiffington thought. The fornication sin was on their souls alone, but he felt the lying about Augustus was on his head as well because he had brought Counsel in. Had vouched for him before God. “I won’t have this keeping things from me about the people in this county. You have but one more time to do this. You hear me, Counsel?”
“I hear you, John. I still say-”
Skiffington walked away.
He rode out of the town and a little more than an hour later found Harvey Travis and Oden Peoples riding and talking loud on the dark road. The rules said there should be three of them but Skiffington didn’t notice.
“You men sell that freed man Augustus Townsend back into slavery?”
Travis laughed but Oden was silent. “John, who put that pickle in your ear?” Travis said. “Who would do such a thing to you, John?”
“Tell me if you did it, Harvey? You and Oden.”
“Why, hell no, John. I ain’t gotta do that kinda thing. Ain’t that right, Oden?”
“Thas true, sheriff.”
“Who would tell you that, John? Barnum Kinsey?”
This, Skiffington thought, was the man who tried to sell a dead cow and then wanted it back when the cow returned to life. But this was also the man who had caught three of Robert Colfax’s slaves trying to escape. He and Oden put fear into anyone trying to escape.
“John, don’t put stock in what Barnum says.”
“I don’t want to hear anything like this about yall again.” He thought of Joseph and his brothers: “For they did unto thee evil: and now, we pray thee, forgive the trespass of the servants of God of thy father.” And Augustus Townsend could still be found and brought back to his wife and home. God still had the power to do that. “If I hear something like this again-”
“Well, you know you won’t, John, and thas all there is to it.”
He did not go home pleased with himself. He had been pleased when Colfax praised him to Williams Robbins and some others. He got to town and wanted to just keep on riding, but he could not put his horse through that. He asked for God’s guidance. He dreamed of Minerva that night. He was walking through a field and crows were flying above him all during the walk and he came to a tent in the desert, the opening flapping in the wind. He knew she was inside, waiting for him, because he could hear her crying, and he was ready to go in but he stood observing the flapping of the opening. The tent was a faded blue that shouldn’t have caught anyone’s eye but he could not move from it. Then the wind stopped and it still flapped, and then when the wind came up again, the opening was still.
He wrote to Richmond the next day, telling the authorities that the Commonwealth of Virginia should be aware of a slave speculator who was selling free Negroes back into slavery. On a separate sheet of paper he answered the questions from the usual form about the alleged crime, the alleged victim or victims, and the alleged perpetrator or perpetrators. When he started writing, there had been certainty that selling Augustus Townsend was a crime, but he became less certain not long before he had to sign his name under all the answers. Had Virginia, in fact, declared such a sale a crime? Could the cord of a man born into slavery ever be cut forever and completely, even if he had been free for some years? Was he not doomed by virtue of the color of his skin? And what would he do with Travis and Oden with only Barnum to stand and say a crime had been committed? The word of a white man against those of another white man and an Indian. Barnum’s word against Travis’s would be something of a fair fight; Barnum was a drunkard but Travis was known to be a cheat and a brute. The dead-cow episode had been widely discussed. But Travis’s word had help from Oden’s word, which was worth only half since he was an Indian. But that half was a half Barnum did not have. Skiffington put the sheet with answers in a drawer and expanded on the letter.
He wrote, as always, to a Harry Sanderson, who was a kind of liaison at the Capitol and was generally helpful when Skiffington needed a circuit judge to come by and preside over a matter. “I have the Governor’s ear,” Sanderson wrote in a curious aside in one letter. Now, Skiffington said, something was amiss with the man Darcy but he needed help in determining what that something was. He wanted to know what the law wanted him to do.
Two days later, in response to one of his telegrams, he heard from a sheriff near the North Carolina border. Darcy had passed through, he said. There had been no trouble, “air undisturbed” was how he put it, but after Darcy left the county the sheriff had discovered a dead Negro child on the side of the road, “not a member of our community, as far as we can tell.”
He got a letter from Sanderson three days after that. A crime had indeed been committed, he wrote, and Sanderson included material he had copied from books saying so. Skiffington heard from Richmond again four days later. In handwriting he did not recognize, a Graciela Sanderson let him know that her husband, Harry, was dead and that she was now charged with keeping up his correspondence. He read the eight-page letter twice but he found nothing in it about what Virginia was doing about the crime of selling free Negroes. The widow told him about her husband, how she had met him when he vacationed in Italy, how he had wooed her, brought her to America after their wedding, and made her a happy woman in Richmond, “where the Governor is in residence.” She closed the letter with two paragraphs about the recent “discouraging” weather in Richmond, and then she asked Skiffington if she should return to her home in Italy, “where the sun is not as spiteful,” or remain in the Capitol where her children and grandchildren were prospering. “I am despondent and I await some answer from you about what I should do.”
He would get more letters from her over the next few days but there would not be time to write her back.
At Hazlehurst, Georgia, just beyond the Altamaha River, Darcy and Stennis met a man outside a saloon. The man was somewhat tipsy but quite alert and he had a Negro beside him. It was evening but there was enough light for the white man to see Augustus in the back of the wagon.
”He’s good flesh,” Darcy said.
“Good flesh,” Stennis said.
“I ain’t in the business for no slave right now,” the man said, one hand on the floor of the wagon.
Darcy said, “Four hundred dollars. Just four hundred, it don’t get any better than that.”
The man hiccuped. “Anything can get better on another day.” The Negro with the white man had stayed near the saloon but now he came down to the street and looked up at Augustus and they nodded at each other.
“Not with this it don’t,” said Darcy. “Four hundred dollars is all I’m asking and I’ll go home tonight and cry bout how you cheated me with that.”
“That price seems a bit much to me,” the man said.
“Not from where I’m standin and I’m standin in good boots. I paid five hundred dollars for this nigger up in Virginia.”
“We a whole lot smarter about our money in Georgia.”
“Yes, you are,” Darcy said. “You certainly are. Why, just the other week when I was up in North Carolina, I said to a gentleman and his gracious and hospitable wife-I said, ‘You can’t beat the Georgia people for their knowledge and intelligence. You can’t beat it with a stick.’ And they agreed.”
“Two sticks,” said Stennis. “Three sticks. Four sticks.”
“Why, I said, Georgia done give us our best president yet.”
“What?” the man said. “What president?” He seemed to sober up.
“I said you can’t beat the Georgia folks for what they gave and give and will continue to give this country, startin with that fine president.”
“What? What kinda president you be talkin about?” He put the other hand on the wagon’s floor, then shook Augustus’s chain. “What damn president you talkin about?”
“Why, the president of the United States, of course. What other kind of president is there?”
“No other kind,” Stennis said.
“There ain’t been no Georgia president of the United States far as I know.” He hiccuped. “I ain’t heard of one yet.”
Augustus and the Negro with the white man had not taken their eyes from each other.
“Why sure, there has been, sir. He was a fine president, too. What was his name, Stennis?”
“Lemme see. Whatn’t that President Bentley? I think it was.”
“Yes, President Bentley fom Georgia. Hooray for President Bentley. Hooray! Hooray!”
“I tell you there ain’t been no damn president from Georgia.”
“There ain’t?” Darcy said. “There ain’t? Well, there damn well should have been. And I’ll tell you somethin-there will be a president from Georgia and real soon.”
“Yes,” Stennis said. “There will be. There will be five at least, as far as I can tell. Maybe ten. Maybe ten. There’ll be ten if I have anything to do bout it. Could go to be twenty or thirty.”
“All right, Stennis, thas anough of that. You see, mister,” and Darcy took his hand. “I’m tryin to give you a good bargain in this here nigger. Just four hundred and fifty. Thas all I’m askin.”
“I thought you said four hundred dollars a minute ago.”
“Did I? Did I say that? Well, it jus goes to show how valuable this nigger gets every minute that goes by. Lordy lordy! Why, in another hour this nigger be so valuable you couldn’t buy him if you was the king of England.”
“I have to be going,” the man said, “I got the queen of England waiting for me.”
“Please, sir,” Darcy said. “Maybe three hundred and fifty, and I’ll be crying in my soup tonight about that.”
“No.” The man began walking away. Darcy followed him and Stennis followed. The Negro stayed with Augustus.
“Three hundred? Two hundred and fifty. Two hundred.” Darcy tugged at the man’s sleeve.
“No. Come along, Belton,” he said to the Negro, but the slave did not move.
“Please. Two hundred dollars. What you want me to do, give him away?”
“That would be a good notion. Come on, Belton,” and both men disappeared around a corner.
“Damn damn damn,” Darcy said, looking at the space the man had just occupied. “You think I was too hard with the bargainin, Stennis.”
“No, Master, I think you was right on the money.”
“Hmm. Well, we best get to beddin down with this fella. I hate to think about headin into Florida. I don’t see good luck in Florida, but tomorrow is another day.”
“And another dollar, Marse.”