March a novel, p.20

March: a novel, page 20


March: a novel

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  Through the ocean roar of my own pounding blood I heard the courtly voice continue. “Do us both a kindness, Mr. Canning. He can’t get far. We’ll catch him in the woods if we don’t take him now.” Ethan sobbed and gasped, struggling for breath. He said something, but I couldn’t make it out. There was the scrape of a saber exiting its scabbard, another scream, and then a thud.

  “He’s fainted,” said a different, coarser, voice.

  “Never mind. Tie him onto his horse and bring up the old nigger.”

  There was a brief moment of more scuffling. Then, “What’s this boy’s name?”

  “Ptolemy, Major.” The answer-low, calm, respectful-was not Ptolemy’s ancient quaver, but the voice of a younger Negro: Zeke.

  “I always did care for that name,” said the major. “We used to own a Ptolemy. Now, boy, be good enough to kneel down, no, over there, that’s right, near the saw logs, by that chopping block. Thank you.” The major raised his voice then, to a resonant shout that filled the yard. “Mr. March, I do hope you can hear me. Because I know you love niggers. We’ve got one here name of Ptolemy, and I’m afraid I’ll be obliged to cut his head off if you don’t come on out here and greet your callers.” He dropped his voice and addressed his men. “No manners at all, these Yankees!” There was laughter.

  I was sweating and shivering. My mind told my body to move, to crawl, to go out and save the old man. But my sinews had turned to broth.

  Then I heard Ptolemy’s cracked voice crying out. “Marse March, if you there you stay put, you hear? I’s all used up and I’s ready to go to G-”

  There was a scrape of metal, a thud as the blade bit into wood, then a dull thump as Ptolemy’s body hit the earth. I felt as if a spear of ice had run me through. My cowardice had just caused the death of a harmless old man. I sagged in my hole, smacking my head against the seed sacks, sobbing like a child.

  “We haven’t got time for any more hide-and-seek,” the major said. “You three, bum the gin house and the seed store. The rest of you, fire the fields. When you’re done, muster at the nigger houses.” He must have spurred his horse then, for it whinnied, wheeled, and cantered off in the direction of the Negro quarters.

  I heard a crackle, then a roar. The lint in the gin house had caught. They were coming now to the seed store. I smelled the sharp scent of paraffin. They were splashing the fuel from their lamps onto the timbers of the shed. If I did not get out I would be incinerated. Finally, my craven limbs consented to move. I was man enough, it seemed, to save my own life. I pushed my way through the scrim of seed and crawled on my belly across the floor to the loose plank the guerrillas had found at the rear of the shed. They had kicked the board free and enlarged the hole, so that I was able to squeeze through. I stayed flat, using my elbows and knees to squirm across the open ground toward a stack of sawn timbers. The fires had lit up the inky night and I would have been spotted, easily, if any of the guerrillas had turned my way. But the burning building stood between us, and their attention was upon it. I reached the timber pile. As I shifted the boards my hands shook. A long splinter drove itself into the fleshy place at the base of my thumb. I shifted the sawn fence posts and wriggled in behind. It wasn’t until I was hidden by the timbers that I could look out through the slats and survey the scene.

  The yard was bright now, both buildings burning fiercely. In that terrible light, I saw Canning. He was lashed to Aster, his legs dangling oddly. There was dark blood dripping from wounds where his knees had been. His head lay slumped against the horse’s neck. The gelding’s mane, too, was all clotted with blood from the side of Canning’s head. They had cut off his ear. Aster, terrified of the fire, and of the smell of blood, was dancing, his eyes white, trying to throw off the unwanted burden.

  A grimacing youth clutched Aster’s reins as he struggled to keep command of his own horse. He was not much more than a boy, slightly built and very thin. As Aster reared, the reins tore at his hand. He swore, and then called to the others. “We ain’t got no more to do here. Let’s git the niggers and git done with this place. But throw the old nigger in the fire first.” The other three—older men with line-scored faces-seemed somehow under the youth’s authority. Two of them picked up Ptolemy’s frail body; the other, cursing, grasped the head. They tossed their burdens into the blaze as casually as if they were feeding logs to a bonfire. I murmured the prayer for the repose of his soul.

  But why would God listen now, to any prayer I offered? My heart was a black pit of hatred. For the unseen, honey-voiced commander, for the thin, cruel youth, for the hard-faced men. But most of all, for myself

  I stayed hidden in the woodpile until they were gone. Then I crawled out and lay on the ground, working my fingers into the packed earth. I had cowered in my hole and let one man be tortured and another murdered. Why had I done that? Why had I let fear master me so completely? Because I wanted to live. But what good was living, if one had to live with such self-knowledge? What would my life be, after this night? How could I face my wife, my children, with this shame blazoned upon me like a brand?

  Slowly, through my grief and self-disgust, a sense of purpose grew within me. I forced myself to stop writhing and to rise up off the dirt. I was on my knees. I wiped my hands over my face, the dirt smearing my cheeks and the splinter scraping against my eye. I would have to redeem the work of the last hour, somehow, and if doing so cost me my life, well, that was worthless now anyway. I took stock of my condition. I was dressed for sleep in a light blouse and pantaloons. I was barefoot. My boots and jacket had been looted, or else had gone up in the blaze. What use I could be in such a state was far from clear. But I knew then that I had to follow Canning, even if all I could do was to be with him at the end. If there were any mercy left in the world, there would be time, at least, for that.

  The darkness had begun to give way a little, and in the pearly grayness I moved at last, running across the yard and into the house, pausing inside to see if there was anyone still there. The place was dark and silent. I ran swiftly through the dining room, noting that the guerrillas had been through the house, with a quick and quiet efficiency, stripping away the very few effects of any value. The candlestick was gone; so was the small amount of china. The precision of their theft spoke of treachery. Zeke. All those months, and his loyalty had remained with his sons, and the Confederate spawn they served. I suppose he had nursed the grievances born of Canning’s early harshness, and nothing that had passed since then had caused a change of heart.

  But Zeke had not known of the hiding place, under a loose floorboard in one of the upper rooms, where Ethan had kept a small store of his personal things. He had shown it to me only recently, against just such a contingency as this. I threw open the shutter to get a little light, and then felt around on the floor for the loose board. I pried it up. There was a leather folder where Canning had told me he kept a small amount of cash. When I flipped it open, I saw that it also contained an ambrotype—a picture of a young, dark-haired girl about the same age as my Meg. Canning had never spoken of her. I brought the image close to my face and took a few seconds to study it. Since there was no resemblance whatsoever between the sweet, round-cheeked, dark-haired girl depicted and the fair, ferret-faced Canning, I couldn’t think it was his sister. The possibility that Canning had a beloved, that he was working himself to a raveling in order, perhaps, to win this girl as his bride, sent a stab of sadness through me. I closed the wallet and stuffed it in the inner pocket of my blouse, where I kept the small silken pouch containing the hair of my dear ones.

  I tried to force my feet into Canning’s best boots, but my feet were many sizes larger than his and my attempt was futile. And yet boots I had to have. I carried them to the kitchen, found the least dull of the knives stored there, and with shaking hands made a rough job of hacking out the toes. The boots were too narrow, and squeezed me, and my bare toes protruded several inches onto the ground, but even so they would serve me better than nothing.

  I ran then, o
ut the door, across the yard, and on toward the fields. They were already ablaze. Above the roar and crackle of the fire, I heard cries coming from the Negro quarters. I changed direction and headed there, coming up through the corn patch that ran all the way to the first dwellings. The corn was high and ripe, and offered good cover.

  I could see now what I took to be the full strength of the force ranged against us. There were twenty men, a ragged company, clad in a motley of butternut and homespun. Two of them were Negroes; Zeke’s sons, I guessed, which probably meant that the lean youth leading Aster was the son of Oak Landing’s former overseer. One of the Negroes sat his horse a little behind an older, better-dressed man, whom I took to be the major. They seemed to be consulting on some kind of sorting process. The rebels had formed a cordon with their horses, ranging themselves in a circle around the Negroes, whom they had gathered together into the yard where we had performed the shout. There were about sixty of our people. I could only surmise that the others-the swiftest-had managed to escape.

  The rebels had two dozen of the Darwin’s Bend Negroes-mostly women but some four or five of the men-roped together at the neck. One of the rebels rode to where the little girl Cilla, the one who reminded me of Amy, cowered behind her grandmother. He pushed the woman away, grasped the child’s wrist, and hoisted her up onto his own horse. When she cried out and tried to climb off, he struck her.

  The others then walked their horses into the midst of the crowd and began snatching up children. They pushed aside the parents, ignoring their pleas and cries. One of the guerrillas grabbed Jimse. I saw the little boy reach out, crying, to his mother. Zannah ran forward with her arms outstretched for her child. The rebel struck her in the face with the butt of his rifle. She got-up, blood streaming from her nose, and ran at him again. This time, he pointed his pistol at the child’s head, and she fell back, dropping to her knees in the dirt. This was too much. I didn’t know what I would be able to do, but this time, I had to do something. I moved forward, parting the corn with my arm. A blow to the back of my knees caused me to crumple. A big hand clapped itself over my mouth. “Stay put, marse,” hissed Jesse, behind me. “Now ain’t no time to make a move.”

  Just then, the major raised his voice above the sobs and the roaring of the blazing fields. “Gentlemen, move out!” he called. “We have an appointment to keep.” He turned to the Negroes. “We’ll have no further quarrel with anyone here so long as you refrain from growing cotton for the enemy. Good day to you.” He lifted a battered chapeau de bras and swept it across his body in a mockery of a bow, and turned his horse for the woods. The youth leading the still-unconscious Canning fell in behind him, followed by the other irregulars, driving the bound slaves and some six of our mules. Zeke, I noted, was mounted on one of them. I wondered when exactly it was that he had determined to betray us. Then I saw that Zannah was running after the party, the need to be with her son more powerful than her fear of reenslavement. One of the irregulars also saw her, and turned to alert the major. The major shrugged, and so the guerrilla pushed Zannah forward into line with the tied slaves and roped her by the neck.

  When they had disappeared into the ragged scallop of cypress woods, Jesse grasped my hand and started after them, keeping to the corn rows. He had a trash-cutters’ knife slung across his back. “If we can just keep sight of them till nightfall,” he said as we advanced at a brisk jog, “then maybe when they’s sleeping we just might git a chance to cut loose some of them.” It was a better plan than any I had, and so we followed them into the trees.


  A Good Kind Man

  The next hours passed in a blur of effort. The ill-fitting boots flayed my feet. Since we kept to the dense scrub, the whipping branches tore at my thin blouse and raked the skin beneath it. Within hours, I was dizzy from lack of food and parched for water, but still we pressed on. Jesse moved forward, apparently insensible to pain or fatigue, and I blundered behind him. The only thing that saved me was that the guerrillas could not drive their captives beyond the pace of the slowest, and even though we came close enough at times to hear the coarse taunts and threats with which they urged on their captives, occasionally they were obliged to halt. We took care to pull up well short of them, and during each brief intermission I lay gasping in the leaf mold, willing myself to stay conscious, to find the resources to continue. When we came in reach of a slow stream, I buried my head in the silty water and drank, even though the chances of the water being wholesome was negligible.

  I don’t think I was ever as eager to see a sunset as I was that day. The guerrillas halted their march in a clearing, and we stayed back at first, burrowed under a fern bank, holding our breath as one of them passed within a few yards of us, scouting for firewood. Jesse pressed his mouth close to my ear, and whispered: “I set two bigjars of shine by the stoop of my cabin, right where the rebs could easy find it. I’s praying they got it.”

  An hour passed, then two. The noise from the camp waxed, and it seemed the guerrillas had indeed found Jesse’s moonshine, or else come ready provisioned with their own. Under the cover of the loud voices and darkness, we crept forward to where we could see the guerrillas’ dispositions. They had the Negroes bound hand and foot now, all but Zannah, whom they had set to tending the cook fire. They knew she would not attempt escape while her child was captive. Jimse was roped, like the others. They had tied them in threes and fours and bound each group to a tree.

  Ethan they had not bound, because he would never run anywhere again. I could not think why they were troubling to bring him on this march when the easier course would have been to kill him outright. They had taken him from the horse and propped him against a fallen log. I could not tell if he was conscious or not, but after a while I saw Zannah take a ladle of some kind of broth to him. Cradling his head, she tried to spoon the liquid into his mouth, but I couldn’t see whether she had any success or not. As I watched, I saw one of Zeke’s sons, a tall lean youth of about nineteen or twenty, amble over to where she squatted and say something to her. She turned her face away and spat in the dirt. The youth drew out his saber and pressed the point of it against her cheek, then he reached down, grasped her by the hair, and pulled her to her feet. Jimse cried out, but May, the Negro woman tied up alongside him, awkwardly pulled him toward her, using hands that were bound at the wrist, and turned his face into her bosom so that he couldn’t see his mother struggling or hear the inhuman sounds she uttered.

  The youth pushed Zannah out toward the picket line and stopped for a word with his brother, who was on watch with one of the gaunt white soldiers who had disposed of Ptolemy. “Save some for me, Cato!” his brother said jovially, handing him a lantern. The white soldier made a lewd gesture. “Wish I could teach mine to rise up for charcoal-colored sluts.” I did not hear Cato’s reply as he passed his brother and drove Zannah on into the the woods. The lantern bobbed and wove through the trees and out of sight on the opposite side of the clearing. I felt Jesse, tense, breathing hard beside me. “We have to help her!” I whispered. He shook his head. “Raise a ruckus now and we’s all done for,” he hissed. “Zannah and that little one of hers as well.” But I had already stood by through a murder; I could not lie in the dark and do nothing while that girl was violated. Using my knees and elbows, I began to ease myself back, away from our vantage point in a tangle of fallen branches. Jesse divined my intention. His great arm shot out and pinned me to the ground. “I mean it, marse,” he hissed. “If you wants to help her, stay quiet now. If we mess this business, she gonna be sold on someplace where she gonna be in for a lot more’n one night like this.”

  “So what are we to do?” I hissed in reply.

  “Wait,” he said. “Wait and let the shine do half the work for us. I put a little something in there that ain’t corn likker.”

  Laughter and raised voices came from the camp. The talk was all about money: how much would the Texas traders pay, the next day, for this Negro and that one? This was the usual, coars
e banter: the likening of human beings to livestock. One of the men was making a crude joke when he stopped midsentence and cursed, pressing a hand into his belly. He blundered off into the woods, bent almost double. The other men laughed and jeered at him, and called out that he had “let a stink worse than a skunk.”

  Suddenly and silently, Jesse was on his haunches, unslinging the great knife bound to his back. “You stay put, marse. This one’s mine. You get the next one.” He passed like a shadow over the ground, making no sound, despite his great bulk. Minutes passed. I strained my ears in his direction, but I could hear nothing over the raucous camp talk and the loud wood noises-the metallic thrumming of the crickets and the deep grinding of the bullfrogs.

  Within a few minutes, he was back, his big knife blood-coated. He had the guerrilla’s rifle, his pistol, and his saber. He handed the latter two to me. My hands shook as I took them. I had come here hoping to free people, but I was a chaplain, not a killer. The saber I could use: I would cut bonds with it. I handed the pistol back to him in the dark. I saw the whites of his eyes regarding me, and imagined the look signaled his contempt. But the moment was not prolonged, for another man had blundered off into the bushes, groaning and cursing his bellyache.

  Jesse stalked after him, and again came back within minutes, bearing weapons. “We ain’t gonna have too many chances like this,” he whispered. “By ’n’ by someone gonna notice no one comin’ back from they’s shits. They gonna miss ’em, and there gonna be a big to-do till they finds them, and then a bigger one.”

  But for the moment, at least, it seemed that the noisy revelry had most of the men well distracted. The talk had turned to Canning, and what he might prove to be worth. “It’ll have to be a good piece to make it worth hauling his sorry self.” It became clear, presently, that the major had somehow formed the crackpot notion that Canning was the scion of a wealthy Northern family. Their plan was to ransom his life.

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