Authors: Al Lacy
Edward Colvin told the slaves who had dug the grave to lower the coffin into it and cover it up. When the burial was completed, plantation foreman George Colvin ordered the slaves back to work.
All eyes were on Ol’ Mose as he shambled toward Matilda and embraced her, speaking words of consolation. The rest of the slaves wept as they turned and headed toward the fields, their heads bowed low and their bare feet shuffling in the red dust. Only the very aged slaves remained in a tight-knit group. They waited to speak to Matilda before slowly making their way back to their shacks.
The Colvins began talking to some of their plantation neighbors. But when George Colvin noticed that Ol’ Mose was still talking to the young widow, he frowned and excused himself to the neighbors, then walked over to the pair and said, “Mose, you have chores to do at the house, and Matilda, you’ve got a field to help prepare for planting. Get to it.”
Matilda’s lips began to quiver, and she drew in a shaky breath.
Mose looked at George, his mouth hanging open in undisguised astonishment. Risking discipline on himself, he said, “Does Massa George have no heart? Matilda’s husban’ was just put in the ground. She is in no condition to work. She should be allowed to go to her shack and rest.”
George stared at the old man, angered that he would dare speak in such a manner. A red flush crept along his cheekbones, and there was a wicked rasp in his voice as he said, “You get back to your chores, old man! I’m the foreman here, and I told this woman to get to her field and go to work! You stay out of it!”
“Excuse me, George,” Dan Johnson said.
George turned toward the voice to find that Dan was standing only inches from him.
While George was still blinking at this intrusion, Dan said, “Ol’ Mose is right. This dear lady just saw her husband buried. Surely you can’t expect her to walk away from this grave and work in the fields the rest of the day. You should let a couple of the women take her to her shack, keep her company, and do what they can to comfort her.”
Ol’ Mose was smiling on the inside.
By now the small crowd of plantation neighbors were looking on, waiting for George’s response.
There was a hard edge to his voice as he said, “You’re sticking your nose in where it doesn’t belong, Dan Johnson! If I say Matilda is to go to the field, that’s exactly what she is going to d—”
“George!” cut in Finn, hastening to him. “Dan is right, son. This dear woman has just been through a dreadful ordeal. Let’s send a couple of the older women with her and let them attend to her in her shack.”
George looked at his father as if he had lost his good sense, but then turned and called to the two aged women who had stood beside Matilda at the graveside service. He told them to take her to her shack and stay with her till sundown.
“Now, that’s better, George,” said Dan. “A man’s got to have some compassion and understanding.”
Finn laid a hand on George’s shoulder, smiled at Dan, and said, “You’ll have to excuse George. Losing Nathaniel has hit him hard. As foreman, he’s concerned that we will have to buy another slave to take Nathaniel’s place. And that won’t be easy. He was an exceptionally strong man and a hard worker.”
“Sure, Finn,” Dan said. “I understand.”
Ol’ Mose took a couple of shuffling steps toward Finn Colvin and said, “Thank you, Massa Finn, fo’ helpin’ Massa George to see that Matilda needs some time to rest.”
Finn nodded, then said, “Well, George, we have some more neighbors to speak to.”
When the Colvins had walked away, Ol’ Mose moved up to Dan
and said, “Massa Dan, I’ve got to head back to the mansion, but I just wanted to say that I ‘preciate you talkin’ to Massa George like that.”
Dan winked at the old man. “Anytime, Ol’ Mose. Anytime.”
Douglas and Jane Addington, who had ridden to the funeral service with the Johnsons had made arrangements to ride back with the Moores. They had seen Dorena at church since coming to Charleston, but had not yet met her. After Priscilla Moore introduced them to her, the Addingtons boarded the Moore carriage for the ride home. They were charmed by Dorena’s beauty and sweet personality.
As Charles drove the carriage across the fields, Jane looked at Evelyn and said, “It’s so nice that Priscilla can have such a lovely companion. I assume she lives in the house with you.”
“Yes, she does. She has her own room right next to Priscilla’s.”
“How nice,” said Jane, smiling at Dorena. “And you’re how old, dear?”
“I am sixteen years old, Mrs. Addington.”
Jane ran her gaze to Priscilla. “And you’re just about the same age, aren’t you?”
“I’m seventeen, ma’am. And Dorena will be seventeen very soon.”
“You see, Jane,” said Evelyn, “Dorena’s father is one of our field slaves, and her mother, Liza, is a house slave. Liza has been one of our house slaves since Dorena was very small and she brought her to the house while she worked. Soon these two girls—being so close to the same age—became fast friends.”
“When Priscilla turned fifteen, she asked her father if Dorena could be her personal slave, and Charles granted her wish.”
“And I’m sure glad,” said Priscilla.
“Me too,” put in Dorena.
Charles looked over his shoulder and said, “Dorena’s father, Caleb, is my favorite field slave. He’s the hardest working man on the plantation.”
“Sounds like they’re a fine family, Charles,” said Douglas.
“The very best.”
“I think it’s so nice that you two girls are such close friends,” Jane said.
Priscilla put an arm around Dorena and hugged her close. “I love her like a sister, Mrs. Addington.”
When the Johnson carriage swung off the Colvin property onto the road, young Alexander said, “I’m proud of you, big brother. You really nailed George’s hide.”
“Yes,” said Angeline. “I think Mr. Colvin only sided with you because it would look good to the neighbors.”
“That was it exactly, honey,” Zack said.
“This whole thing disgusts me, Pa,” Dan said. “Finn Colvin murdered Nathaniel, and he’s getting away with it. Something has just got to be done.”
“But what, son? We already agreed there’s nothing we can do about it. We’ll have to let the Lord handle it.”
“But Pa, don’t you think sometimes the Lord expects us to do what we can about bad situations, before He will go to work on them?”
“I’m sure that’s true. But in this bad situation our hands are tied.”
“You mean because the chief constable and the sheriff are in Finn Colvin’s hip pocket?”
“Exactly. Hugh Mulvey likes the money Finn slips him now and then, and so does Sheriff Washburn. Sure, nobody believes such a thing is happening, but you and I know it is.”
Dan sighed. “Yeah. But we can’t prove it. Still, I think we need to give it a try. At least put some pressure on Mulvey and Washburn. I
know you’ve got your hands full of business matters today, so I’ll go to Mulvey’s office and tell him I have reason to suspect that Finn beat Nathaniel to death. When Mulvey asks what my reason is, I’ll tell him about George bragging at the Three Lanterns that his father had flogged Nathaniel to death for insubordination. Then I’ll go to Washburn’s office and lay it on him, too. Maybe a little pressure in the right spots will produce something.”
Zack shrugged. “Well, it sure can’t hurt anything. Go ahead. But I’m sure it’ll turn out that you were wasting your time.”
“Probably. But I still have to try, Pa. No man should get away with murder.”
The carriage was moving past the Colvin mansion. Dan eyed the grandiose structure and said, “Pa, they’ve got to be stopped before another slave is beaten to death.”
“Well, you do what you feel you have to, and from that point, leave it in the Lord’s hands.”
“And remember, Dan,” Catherine said, “the Lord’s wheels of justice sometimes turn very slowly. Let Him handle it in His own time.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Dan squared his shoulders, then added, “Of course, I would like to see justice done before I leave these parts.”
The subject of Dan’s big dream to go out West and become a cattle rancher was a touchy one in the Johnson household. No one liked the idea of him living more than a thousand miles away.
“Well, that will be quite a while yet, son,” said Catherine. “This is something you want to move very slowly on.”
“Sure, Mama, but I’m twenty-one years old. A man can’t put his big dream off too long. I found an article in the
South Carolina Gazette
yesterday about ranching in the West, and it was fascinating. People are going out there by the hundreds to build new lives on the frontier, and new cattle ranches are springing up all over the West. I mean, from Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas all the way to the Pacific Coast. Cattle ranching is really big business in Texas, according to
the article. The market for beef is growing rapidly in the East and here in the South, and they’re looking to the ranchers in the West to produce it. And, of course, as the population enlarges in the West and towns grow into large cities, the demand for beef will become greater out there.”
“Son,” Zack said, “I hope one day it will work out for you, if it’s God’s will for your life. But like your mother said, move slowly. Don’t rush into it and make a big mistake. The most miserable Christian is one who gets out of God’s will.”
“I understand that, Pa. I assure you, I’ll go slow and put a lot of prayer into it.”
T WAS EARLY AFTERNOON
in Charleston when Chief Constable Hugh Mulvey, who was standing behind his desk talking to one of his officers, heard the door open.
He saw the stalwart form of Dan Johnson silhouetted against the brilliant sun. “Hello, Dan,” he said, an amiable smile forming on his lips.
Dan nodded as he held the door open. “I need to see you, Chief. Am I here at a bad time?”
“Not at all. I was just sending Officer Morehead on an assignment.” Then he said to the officer, “Let me know what kind of reception you get.”
“Will do, Chief,” the deputy said and hurried toward the door. Dan left it open for him, and Morehead closed it behind him as he went out.
Mulvey sat down behind his desk and gestured toward a chair. “Sit down, Dan. Now, what did you need to see me about?”
“Sir, did you hear about one of the slaves dying at the Finn Colvin plantation?”
Mulvey frowned. “No. I have no reason to know when slaves die. Is there some reason I should know about this one?”
“Yes there is, sir.”
“Male or female?”
“What was his name?”
“Young, sir. Twenty-nine.”
“But why should I know about his death?”
“Because he was murdered, sir.”
Mulvey’s head bobbed. “Murdered?”
“Yes, sir. He was beaten to death.”
Mulvey smiled and shook his head. “C’mon, now. Why would Finn beat a man to death who cost him good money?”
“To instill fear in the rest of the slaves, lest they forget the power Finn and his sons have over them.”
“Kill the slave simply to instill fear in the others?”
“Well, the beating Finn administered was supposed to be for insubordination on Nathaniel’s part. I knew Nathaniel, Chief. Not intimately, of course, but I knew him well enough to tell you that he wouldn’t rebel against the authority of Finn and his sons. Or any of the Colvin overseers, for that matter.”
“So what makes you think he was beaten to death? And how do you know it was Finn?”
“Because yesterday at the Three Lanterns tavern, George Colvin was bragging to some of his pals that his father had beaten Nathaniel to death for insubordination. He said that only he and Edward were allowed inside the barn where Finn did it. None of the slaves actually witnessed the beating, but you can be sure they heard it. Of course, I realize no slave’s word is any good to the law, but there were enough men in the tavern that if you did a little investigating you would find plenty of witnesses who heard what George said.”
Mulvey pulled at an ear, cocking his head to one side. “Was George drunk?”
“Word is that he had certainly put down a sufficient amount of whiskey to make a man slur his words.”
“And what exactly do you want from me?”
Dan leaned forward. “Chief, I want you to arrest Finn Colvin and see that he is tried for murder.”
Mulvey showed no emotion, but only said, “Was Nathaniel married?”
“Yes. He left a widow named Matilda. They had no children.”
“All right, Dan. I’ll investigate it. Come back tomorrow morning and I’ll let you know what my investigation has revealed.”
Rising from the chair, Dan said, “See you tomorrow, Chief.”
Mulvey quickly rounded his desk and walked Dan toward the door. “Have you talked to Sheriff Washburn about this?”
“Not yet, but I’m going over there right now. I want to get both of you on it.”
“Well, with a charge like this, I would go to the sheriff anyway, Dan. I’ll go over there right now and give him the information you’ve given me. He and I can work together on it.”
“All right. I’ll head on home then. See you tomorrow.”