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Authors: Charles Alverson

Caleb

BOOK: Caleb
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Text copyright © 2014 Charles Alverson

All rights reserved.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

 

Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle

 

www.apub.com

 

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of
Amazon.com
Inc. or its affiliates.

 

ISBN-13: 9781477826232

ISBN-10: 1477826238

 

Cover design by Olga Grlic

 

Library of Congress Control Number: 2014941658

Other Titles from Charles Alverson

The Word

Mad Dog Brewster

Apache Dreaming

Imagine Me

Hooligans

Fighting Back

Goodey’s Last Stand: A Joe Goodey Hard Boiled Mystery

Not Sleeping, Just Dead: A Joe Goodey Hard Boiled Mystery

1

As Boyd Jardine wandered out of Reilly’s Tavern, he was drawn to the clamor of voices down by the wharf. A little paddle wheeler towing a barge had just landed, and slaves were being herded, chains clanking, onto the platform where just about everything that came from up or down the river was sold.

Jardine wasn’t in the market for another slave. He’d come to Lynche’s Landing only to deliver a wagonload of cotton and to get his second-best plow mended. But now his pocket was full of money and his belly half-full of brandy. It didn’t hurt to look, did it?

“Step up, step up,” the dealer was calling to the shoppers on the boardwalk and idlers on the wharf. “Come see the finest bunch of blacks come down the river this year! Every one a bargain. I’ve got to sell them all—today! Step up, step up.”

Jardine thought they did look pretty good. Especially a high-yellow girl of about thirteen who stood gazing nonchalantly down at him. She had one hand on her hip, and a tear in her sacking shift exposed a small breast. He could smell her from where he stood, and he had to admit it was not a bad smell. Not bad at all.

Jardine was just extending a hand in the direction of the girl when a loud voice called out from behind him, “Careful, Boyd! Nancy would about kill you, and you know it.”

He looked around to see Rafe Bentley, his nearest neighbor, laughing and showing his big yellow teeth. Sitting beside him in the buggy, Mrs. Bentley was not smiling.

“Hello, Rafe,” Jardine said. “Mrs. Bentley.” He raised his straw hat at the sour, angular woman and moved down the platform, not knowing where he was heading, except away from that yellow girl.

His slightly stumbling progress took him past a worn-down old man, more gray-skinned than black, and brought him to the spot where a large, younger man stood
turned slightly away from the rest. This one not only wore leg irons like the others, but his hands were cuffed in steel, a sure sign, Jardine reckoned, of a problematic black.

Motivated by no more than curiosity, Jardine looked more closely. The slave was tall, well muscled, and considerably over two hundred pounds. His hands were big and knotted from hard labor, but the most interesting thing about him was his face. There was nothing special about his features—a broad nose cut by an old scar, thick lips, and a strong jaw holding big, regular
teeth. But there was something in his eyes that Jardine—even in his pleasantly half-drunken state—thought he recognized, although he
couldn’t say exactly what it was.

Raising a hand, Jardine gestured for the black man to turn around.

Instead, the slave looked at him directly and said with a dimly recognizable accent, “You don’t want to buy me. I’ll kill the man who buys me.”

Jardine was as dumbfounded as if Jackie, his best mule, had suddenly started spouting Shakespeare. It had to be the brandy, he thought.

“What!” Jardine nearly screamed. “What did you say?”

But the slave’s face had closed up like a fist. He looked not down at Jardine but over his head.

Noting the disturbance, the slave dealer worked his way down the platform, pushing his wares out of his way as he went. When he got to Jardine, there was no surprise in his expression. Without thinking, he aimed an open-handed cuff at the big slave’s head. He might as well have struck one of the pillars of the wharf for all the notice it got him. But then, remembering why he was on that platform, the dealer adjusted his expression and addressed himself to Jardine.

“High spirits, sir,” he said. “They do say it’s the sign of a good slave. That is, if a man knows how to handle him.”

“I’ll handle him, all right,” Jardine said. “If I had my pistol on me, I’d shoot him dead.”

“That could be an expensive luxury, sir,” the dealer said. “This here’s a thousand-dollar slave.”

“A thousand dollars!” Jardine scoffed. “He looks like dog meat to me.”

The dealer grabbed the chain connecting the big man’s leg irons to his handcuffs, pulling him off balance and turning him around. “Look at them muscles,” he crowed.

“Look at them whip cuts,” countered Jardine. The man’s broad back was crosshatched with evidence of severe whippings, some old but others still oozing pus.

“Some people,” observed the dealer, “think a whip is the answer to everything. For you, sir, I’ll make it eight hundred dollars. He’s promised to a man down in Baton Rouge who is going to cut my heart out, but I can see that you are the man to tame this blackamoor.”

Jardine thought for a long moment. “Five hundred fifty dollars,” he said, digging in his pocket.

2

After getting the bill of sale, Jardine told the dealer’s man to strike the leg irons off the slave.

“You sure?” asked the man. “This is a bad one.”

“Just get them off,” said Jardine.

The dealer’s man led the slave to Jardine’s wagon. Jardine secured the slave to the tailgate by the chain linking his steel cuffs. Then he asked the slave, “What did you say to me back there?”

The man didn’t answer.

“You’ll want to talk by-and-by,” Jardine told him as he untied the reins and jumped up on the driver’s bench.

The slave walked—or ran—every inch of the twelve miles to Three Rivers. When he fell, Jardine—who was not a sadist and kept glancing over his shoulder—stopped the wagon and gave him time to get up. But then he whipped up the donkeys and proceeded along, exactly as if the man were not half staggering, half loping behind, eating red dust and coughing and spitting it back up. Some of the people they passed on the beaten clay road looked with some interest at Jardine driving a mostly empty wagon with a slave stumbling behind it. But in Kershaw County, people minded their own business. If they were white, Jardine raised his straw hat, showed his teeth, and shouted out, “Good day.” If they were black, he just didn’t see them.

While they were waiting for the mule ferry on the Wateree River, Jardine looked over his new purchase. There were some new skinless patches on his knees and chest and long red streaks where the cuffs had raked his wrists, but nothing serious. Jardine took a long drink of cool water from the earthenware jar in the wagon. Then he filled another gourd and held it up to the slave.

“What did you say to me back there?”

When, once again, the man failed to answer, Jardine poured the water on the ground and went back to waiting for the ferry. The loudest sound was the deep, gasping breaths of the slave.

 

From the long veranda of Three Rivers plantation, Nancy Jardine, twenty-two years old, more striking than pretty, and just beginning to show her third month of pregnancy, saw the cloud of dust moving down the road from the turnpike. She reached for the brass telescope in its holder on a fluted wooden pillar and put it to her eye. As she had anticipated, it was Jardine. But she hadn’t expected to see a black man shambling behind his wagon. The man fell, and Jardine stopped the wagon. Nancy watched until he slowly got up and stood head down. When the wagon started up again, she closed the telescope, saying under her breath, “Boyd, you damned fool.”

When Nancy got down to the cotton barn, Jardine was already off the wagon and—with Big Mose standing close by—had broken the chain between the slave’s cuffs and nailed each half to the barn door. The man stood between them, spread-eagle and facing the door. With the slim buggy whip in his right hand, Jardine again asked, “What did you say to me back there?”

The new slave, completely red with dust caked on sweat, turned his head to the side, closed his eyes, leaned heavily against the barn door, and gasped. He didn’t say a word.

As he stepped back and raised the whip, Jardine sensed Nancy standing behind him. He knew that no matter what he said she wouldn’t go away. He felt surrounded by silent adversaries. Bringing the light whip down harder than he’d intended, Jardine heard in rapid sequence the crack of the whip on the man’s back, his stifled grunt, and the thump of his big chest hitting the barn door. He saw a spurt of blood as the rawhide broke open a recent welt. He also heard a disapproving intake of breath from Nancy.

Pride barely satisfied, Jardine threw the whip to Mose.

“Get him down and have Dulcie see to those scrapes. Bed him down in the long shed. I’ll have a look at him in a few days.” Turning around, he feigned surprise at seeing his young wife.

“Hello, darling,” he said. “What are you doing down here in all this dirt?”

“I just wanted to welcome you home, dear,” she said with a double-edged smile. “Come,” she added, taking his slim but masculine hand. “I’ve got a pitcher of lemonade on the veranda and a real treat—ice. Hurry before it all melts!”

 

On the veranda in the relative cool of a late June afternoon, Jardine took the glass of lemonade from his wife, sat down on a wicker chair, and pulled her into his lap.

“My God,” he said, “that baby must weigh a ton already.”

“Thank you!” Nancy laughed.

They talked of this and that: Nancy’s busy day, the price of cotton, seeing the Bentleys in town. Nancy did not ask about her husband’s new acquisition and would not. It was not her way. But they both knew that the subject would come up eventually.

“I didn’t mean to buy him, Nance,” Jardine said suddenly. “I had to.”

“I know, dear,” she said, running a small hand through his thick blond curls.

“You don’t know,” he protested. “You don’t know what he said to me.” Jardine waited for her to ask, but he knew better. “He threatened to kill me.”

“If you’d run me all those miles behind a wagon and then whipped me, I’d do more than threaten to kill you,” she said frankly.

“No, Nance,” he said in a pleading voice, almost like a small boy. “He threatened to kill me
before
I bought him.”

“Why?”

“He thought I wanted to buy him.”

“But you didn’t?”

“No!”

Nancy considered this for a moment. “But you bought him.”

“I had to,” he said.

Nancy slipped her arms around her husband’s neck and enveloped him with her small body. “Well, one thing’s for sure, darling,” she said. “You seem to have got yourself an unusual slave.”

“Another thing, Nance,” he said, his voice muffled by her long chestnut hair. “He talks funny.”

BOOK: Caleb
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