Notes: This story takes place right after the episode The Trial, and right before the death of Nathans father. It deals a lot with the issue of slavery and subsequently the brutalities suffered upon slaves by their masters prior to and during the Civil War.
Everybody, explained a former slave, wants the privilege of whipping somebody else. Quote from the book; Brother Against Brother, The War Begins.
Special Thanks: To my betas Julie, Antoinette, and Katherine youre all just awesome!
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Obadiah Jackson leaned back against the headboard and pillows of his sons bed. He watched his boy move around the room, trying to come up with an herbal cure for his consumption. No matter what he did, he wouldnt find one. Obadiah knew he was dying, and hed finally come to terms with that. Nathan, however, refused. After having just found his father after almost fifteen years, he wasnt willing to give up.
The West had given him an opportunity that the South had denied him. And it wasnt just freedom. Here in Four Corners he had a purpose, a position, and most importantly respect. As a slave those things didnt exist, but as a free man they did. Those things couldnt be bought or sold, but rather, they could only be earned. With purpose, a position, and the respect also came the guilt of not having really earned it. Strange as it seemed, as a former slave Nathan harbored feelings only he or another slave could know or feel. Nobody else who wasnt there ever could.
Death was something Nathan had learned to deal with. More so than most men his age in his chosen professions, working as both a healer and hired gun. It was never easy watching a life dissipate. Losing a parent was something every child had to face. Nathan had faced Death before, in many different manners, but now it was personal. He was watching his father slowly die. The consumption was slowly drowning him; literally it was eating away his lungs. Nathan could only watch. Even the best of doctors couldnt save a patient suffering from the illness. It was a death sentence. The only uncertainty was the where and when it chose to occur.
Here, Daddy, Nathan said, handing his father a hot cup of tea. Drink that, itll help.
Aint nothin goin to help me now, Obadiah replied, but he drank the brew anyway.
Nathan seated himself on the chair next to the bed. Four weeks hadnt been long enough to recover from fifteen years of loss, not nearly enough. Why didnt you ever tell me bout momma?
I didnt want you growin up not understandin the pain she went through she wouldnt have wanted it that way. He coughed into his handkerchief leaving crimson stains embedded in the fine fabric.
Nathan shook his head. The bleeding was getting worse, and the coughing more frequent. I wouldave understood.
No, Obadiah replied, you wouldnt have. He resituated himself on the bed and made himself more comfortable. The day your momma died he shook his head, momentarily unable to reply, I knew in my heart Id lost more than I could ever replace.
Nathan reached down and squeezed his fathers hand, trying to offer some comfort in any manner he could.
The night you escaped, I knew youd find freedom to know the feeling of not belonging to anyone but yourself. Obadiah smiled proudly. The thought of my son bein a free man
The healer looked at his father, feeling suddenly undeserving of his fathers praise. I wanted you to come.
I couldnt Obadiah shook his head. You were always such a smart boy. He smiled, looking at his son, I wish your momma could see you now shed be so proud.
Nathan squeezed his fathers hand again, trying to offer some sort of comfort. Judge Travis had, in a way, shown sympathy toward Obadiahs situation. He wouldnt hang instead, he live for as long as he could with an illness that was slowly killing him. Nathan was thankful, not that his father was dying, but rather because hed had the chance to gain some much needed peace. When hed left the plantation so long ago he knew in his heart hed never see his father again. It was Obadiah that urged him to run it was he that gave his son the strength to leave when he did.
Nathan looked around the room his room, and sighed. None of this would have been possible if it wasnt for his past. A mans past is what made up his future, nobody knew that better than the healer. People of all kinds came to him in need of service, him, a former slave a slave that had been beaten and whipped into submission. Not anymore. Now, Nathan made up his own mind, made his own decisions, and followed his own heart. He was his own master. But it didnt used to be that way. No. Not so long ago none of this would have been possible.
By the age of 12 Nathan was working in the fields of the Alabama plantation he, his father, and his two sisters had been sold to five years earlier. His sisters worked in the big house, and he hadnt seen them in over two years. Master Jackson didnt allow his house niggers to socialize with his field niggers. Already Nathans hands were worn, callused, and unsightly. He never knew anything else other than being a slave. He worked from sun up until sundown, and many times later, depending on the brightness of the moon. They were treated like animals, owned like property, and many times discarded like garbage. Nathan hated it! He hated the poor treatment, the submissiveness, and the sheer humility of it. Slaves were matched for marriage on the basis of their looks so they could produce more slaves, stronger slaves, and harder working slaves. Women were often forced into relations with the plantations white overseers. And then there were the slaves who were beaten, whipped, and placed in irons. Punishments were always conducted in front of other slaves, that way they understood the repercussions of disobeying an order.
This was not the life meant for him. Nathan was sure of it. There was a burning inside that wouldnt let him rest, and wouldnt let him be satisfied living from day to day under the threats of the plantation owner. Mr. Jackson wasnt a man who tolerated much. Though he portrayed himself as a Christian man with high morals and decorum, his slaves saw him differently.
Ethan Jackson was a short man with a bulging middle and long cold fingers. He was never without anything, whether it be servants, food, or fancy attire. His slaves were just that, slaves. They were treated no better or worse than the cattle and horses he owned. He made trips into town every month to purchase more slaves as disease, illness, and poor care, took many of the ones he already owned. He didnt see a profit in hiring a doctor to see to his servants. Instead he allowed them to treat each other much like they would for his stock.
Nathan pulled the cotton from the shaft of the plant he was working on and then shoved it into the sack on his back that was growing heavy with the fiber. Night was falling, thankfully, and the cloud cover ensured him an early night to bed. Singing filled the air, and that was the only thing that could bring him comfort. The deep soulful sounds echoed in the air like honey. He knew the songs were filled with messages, messages that the overseer didnt understand, if he did, they wouldnt be aloud to sing.
They werent animals. No. They were much more than that much more.
When the bell rang everyone stood up from their knees and started for their homes. The end of the day had arrived, and that meant rest. Obadiah helped his son with his satchel as they headed out of the fields. After working eleven hours with only one fifteen minute break everybodys bones were aching. Nathan sucked on his pinky after having sliced it on one of the cotton plants. The things were full of thorns and made it even harder to pull the white fiber from them.
Everyone walked in silence, uttering not a word. Nathan and Obadiah shared their home with nine others. In reality it could hardly be called a home. The roof leaked, and the wind would slice through the walls like a knife through paper. Winters were always the hardest, but summers more deadly being filled more with illness and death.
Nathan seated himself on his bed, which was nothing more than two threadbare blankets, and an old coat for a pillow. Dinner consisted of bread and squash, meat was sometimes available, but not often enough to supply sustenance. He looked around the room and sighed. That burning desire to one day get free was eating at him and he couldnt stop the yearning.
Nathan woke before the crack of dawn listening only to the comforting sounds of those breathing deeply around him. The morning work bell had yet to be rung and for that he was thankful. It was times like these that he could think about his future and what he wanted to do with it. Freedom, such a simple thing really, while at the same time the most valued. The freedom to choose, go where he wanted, and the freedom to decide his own fate. Hed heard stories of slaves that had run away and gone North, some had even escaped and gone West. Their fates were unknown, but the stories that had followed their escapes captured the attention of everyone who dreamed of freedom.
The sharp sound of the work bell woke everyone from their sleep. Many had already awoken, but instead of getting up they stared into space thinking about things that only they knew. With only twenty minutes to eat, dress, and take care of any other need they might have, everyone moved around their homes like well-trained dogs.
Nathan Jackson! The voice echoed across the grounds causing everyone to turn in stunned silence.
Nathan stopped, more out of fear than anything else. He never knew what to expect. He lowered his gaze, not allowed to look a white man in the eyes.
The plantation overseer stopped in front of the youth and with a motion of his head he ordered the slaves standing around to start walking toward the fields. Mister Ives placed his hands on his hips and looked at the young black man standing before him.
Master Jackson wants to see you, he said bitterly, as though the very words stung his tongue. Now! He yelped, and then chuckled softly when the boy rushed for the house.
Obadiah watched his son, all the while praying that no harm would befall on him. Nathan was a smart boy, and one that wouldnt jeopardize the people around him for any cause. Obadiah quickly turned his attention back towards the fields. He didnt want to make things worse for his son, not by any means.
The plantation house or Plethora as it had been named, was a large beautiful home that lived up to its name. Congressmen from the state of Alabama had come to stay here, many times for parties and other times for business. White columns gave the home an even larger appearance and the gardens that surrounded the mansion truly created a masterpiece.
The masters family consisted of his wife Anna Mae, and their two sons, John and Manning. Manning was the youngest, all of fourteen years of age and he was his fathers favorite son. John was older and challenged his father in many subject areas, including slavery. Both boys were barrel-chested like their father, but they had their mothers fair complexion. Anna Mae was a small woman with blonde hair streaked with gold and she had large brown eyes. Naturally a quiet and submissive person, she spent her days doing needlepoint and knitting. Her husbands affairs were just that, his affairs, and she chose not to get involved.
Nathan waited outside the large home waiting for the master to exit. He knew if he went to the door and knocked hed get punished, so it was better to wait. He could see the house servants moving around through the windows. He quietly wondered if his sisters could see him. He missed them both. When the back door opened he jumped back expecting Master Jackson to exit. Instead, it was the house cook dumping out the breakfast remains. She smiled shyly at the young boy and returned quickly to her duties.
So much waste. Nathan sighed, looking at the food that had been discarded. Uneaten rolls and sausages sat in the buckets that would eventually go to feed the pigs. All that food would fill a house full of slaves, and yet nobody seemed to care nobody important anyway.
Boy, get over here, the familiar sound of Master Jacksons voice filled the air.
Nathan looked up then headed to where the plantation owner stood. His son Manning was next to him, looking as though he was next in line to inherit the world. Nathan kept his eyes cast downward as he approached the pair. He didnt want to be beat.
Master Jackson tossed his slave a long blade. The sword felt awkward in his grasp. Nathan had never felt anything quite like it before, and the edge of the blade was sharp sharp enough to kill with.
Youll be my sons sparing partner, Randolph Jackson said. My suggestion to you, boy, is learn quickly. The tone of his voice wasnt lost on Nathan.
Nathan looked up and caught sight of Manning wearing heavy clothing that would protect him from any kind of attack. The young slave boy also knew that if he harmed that boy in any way he would be punished. So, he had to learn how to defend himself with this weapon before he could use it for any good.
Master Jackson moved out of the way, sitting at the table that had been moved into the yard for him. A glass of wine and a plate of rolls filled the table that rested perfectly under the large willow tree. Manning stood back and moved his sword in elegance. He knew how to use the weapon.
Is this a fair fight? John asked, stepping out into the yard. He looked from his brother to his father and his eyes finally rested on the young boy being forced to fight.
Of course not! Manning snapped, resting his hand on the handle of the steel weapon. If it were equal hed be white! He shook his head in disbelief.
John chuckled: Is it less expensive to fight and kill a slave of no training than hire a white man whos been educated in the art of sword fighting?
Yes, came the shrewd reply.
John shook his head in disbelief. You should open your eyes, brother. The world is changing and not you or men like you can keep things as they are.
Youre a fool, John, Manning snapped.
Then let me teach him If Im such a fool then hell not learn anything and youre only out a few days. There was a glint in Johns eyes that expressed a ray of hope within Nathan.
ENOUGH! Master Jackson yelled, letting his glass hit the ground and then shatter. He stood up abruptly and stormed over to his sons. I will not tolerate this abolitionist talk!
Nathan stood back watching. It was turning out to be a truly eye-opening experience. They treated him as though he wasnt even there, he didnt exist in their eyes.
All Im saying is the boy can be taught to fight, John yelled. Would it not be better to fight an opponent of some skill, therefore improving your own?
Manning stood back and tentatively agreed. Ill agree to that if just to prove that these niggers aint worth it! He motioned coldly toward Nathan.
Mr. Jackson grabbed the collar of his oldest sons shirt. An educated nigger is still a nigger, he swore harshly into his sons face.
John stood still, fear gripping his very being. His father was an intimidating man, but there were qualities about him that were good just well hidden. John nodded his head in understanding and he sighed when his father released him.
Do what you will, but push my patience further he let his warning hang before moving angrily towards the house.
Manning cocked an eyebrow and smiled. Once again hed won his fathers approval over his brothers. He kicked his rapier up, laying it across his arms. Two days, he said with a grin.
John turned his attention toward Nathan, whod been all but forgotten. Follow me, he ordered, walking towards the barn.
Even at the tender age of twelve, Nathan was tall and muscular. Thats why he started working in the fields before most boys his age. The men and women he worked with knew him as a quiet boy, with an extraordinary gift of working with his hands. His patience and nerves of steel gave him the confidence that so many of his fellow friends lacked. Slaves never had the opportunities that white children had, as far as having playful games and exciting adventures. Instead they were submissive and taught to obey no matter the chore. Those that didnt suffered the consequences.
John grabbed his rapier from its storage space in the barn and then turned and looked at the much younger man standing in uncertainty near the door. Though there was five years difference between them, they both had visions of the future that were not accepted by the people running the plantation. One had the power to change and fight for what he believed the other, could only voice his opinions in his head.
Its called a rapier, John said, moving closer to Nathan. Have you ever seen one? His voice was in tight control.
If youre going to fight with one of these, youll need to look your opponent in the eye. John stood before his fathers slave and waited until he turned his eyes upward. Ill not harm you, he reassured.
No offense, sir, but its not you I fear, Nathan said, surprising himself of his boldness.
John laughed: No, its not me you have to fear. It is, however, my brother and my father that you must. So, its necessary for you to understand what I tell you.
Nathan nodded his head. He knew he should be grateful for Johns willingness to teach him, and he didnt want to lose the opportunity. If he did hed die.
John watched only for a moment, trying to decipher how he was going to teach this boy. Like any other, he thought to himself. If he were going to speak with the abolitionist movement in mind then he was going to have to act with it as well. John moved in beside Nathan and started showing him some basic moves. John even went so far as to touch him, while showing him how to handle the blade in its proper manner and how to move and deflect oncoming thrusts.
Why dont you train your brother? Nathan asked, wanting to break the silence that had continued for so long. He knew he was taking a chance in asking, but it was as though his mouth was working without his mind.
My father asked me to but I refused. John looked at his rapier, remembering better days. My brothers weakness is his temper, remember that. Dont fight him, just defend yourself. He quickly changed the subject.
Nathan nodded in understanding.
John stopped and looked at the young man who was quickly growing on him. Do you know how to read?
No, sir, Nathan replied honestly.
John nodded: I cant teach you, but I can bring you some books so you can teach yourself.
Nathans eyes widened in anticipation, this was his first glimmer of hope.
John understood the hunger in the slaves eyes. He didnt understand how strong it was, not by any means, but he did recognize the need. Ill bring you some tomorrow but dont let anyone know you have them.
There was a hint of warning in Johns voice, and Nathan understood that if he were caught with the paraphernalia hed be whipped. Hed take the chance anyway. If he learned how to read he could do more with his life.
There were two books, which was all John could hide under his shirt. When he handed the items to Nathan something happened. The plantation owners son saw for the first time in his life the yearning desire in a slave to better himself. Hed been raised around slaves all his life. They were a part of his culture, his upbringing, and his livelihood, but this was different.
The writings of William Lloyd Garrison, John Greenleaf Whittier, and finally Harriet Beecher Stowe had indeed influenced him in many ways. His father had been right. The books he read were polluting his mind, but not in a bad way, but rather, a very good way. He watched Nathan handle the books, Uncle Toms Cabin and a simple childrens book that had been made out of cloth. It was simply a homemade quilt with the letters of the alphabet and an object starting with the letter, a simple tool for learning.
John had discovered what he wanted to do with his life. Hed fight slavery with everything he could. He might not be able to help the slaves his father owned, but he could help those that had run and were in need of aid. Nathan wasnt the only child out there with a desire to learn and make his life better. The only difference between himself and Nathan was the color of their skin.
I cant thank ya enough, Nathan said shyly. Hed never had anyone give him anything of such value except his father.
We should practice, John replied, uncomfortable with the gratefulness of the slave boy.
Yes sir, came the quick reply. Nathan quickly hid the books under some straw, not wanting someone to walk into the barn and see them. He was going to learn. For the first time in his life there was something other than being a slave to grasp onto.
Manning practiced his moves in the yard while his brother and father watched from their position under the willow tree. The boys mother watched from the window, unwilling, or unable to move outside with the rest of them. The Alabama sun had heated the ground and the backs of those standing under it.
Nathan stood back watching. It had been two days since hed been out in the fields, and truthfully he didnt miss it. He didnt care if he ever saw a cotton plant again. He looked over at John and saw the confidence he needed in order to defend himself against Manning. John had been right when he said his brother was overly aggressive. Nathan wasnt dumb, and he watched his future opponent with careful eyes. His life depended on it.
Master Jackson looked pleased with himself, obviously he was waiting for a quick kill. He sipped his wine elegantly, holding his pinky away from the finely crafted crystal. The rings on his fingers glistened in the sunlight, and his belly hung past his belt in a grotesque fashion. Even the clothing he wore reeked of wealth and privilege that, in Nathans eyes, he didnt deserve.
Im ready, Manning announced, standing proudly on the lush grass.
Nathan moved forward raising his sword. All he had to do was defend himself. John had taught him well and he took those long lessons to heart, memorizing every word and action. Just because hed never been taught how to read didnt mean he wasnt smart.
Manning lunged forward in just the manner John had showed Nathan he would. Metal struck metal and the sharp sound filled the air. Birds flew out of the trees in escape creating moving shadows on the ground. Nathan continued to move back while deflecting the oncoming thrusts. Master Jacksons laughter had dissipated considerably.
Nathan wasnt losing.
Manning rushed forward, allowing his anger to drive him. This was supposed to be easy, but instead, this slave was deflecting all of his strikes. Everything he tried was stopped. Blinded by his anger he barely felt a dull pound to his right side. He stepped back and wiped his brow free of the sweat that had gathered there.
Did you hit me? He asked the slave.
Nathan stood silent, afraid to answer. He looked toward the ground and nodded his head. Yes, sir, he answered softly, knowing hed be punished.
Manning raised his rapier and struck Nathan on the shoulder, cutting his shirt and slicing his flesh. Nathan grabbed his arm to stop the flow of blood. He knew it was his punishment.
He fought you fairly, Manning! John snapped, getting to his feet.
He struck me!
Johns right, Master Jackson said, finishing the last of his wine. He then stood up slowly and walked over to where his boys stood.
Both John and Manning stood back, shocked by their fathers statement. Nathan looked up, slightly surprised as well. Hed struck the son of his master, something like that could have repercussions that hed never recover from.
If you cant beat a slave whos only just learned how to fight then perhaps you should reconsider your talent? Master Jackson looked disappointedly at his son. Or maybe, have him instruct you.
What? Manning asked in disbelief.
He said, have him instruct you, John replied, feeling somewhat vindicated.
I know what he said! Manning snapped. If hes so good, he turned to his father, why dont you spar with him.
I intend to, Master Jackson said. Then youll learn to fight with blades like you should, and not like some child, the words fell off his tongue like bitter wine.
Manning threw his rapier to the ground and stormed towards the house. He wouldnt take being humiliated in front of a slave any longer. His brother and father watched him leave, not offering to stop him.
Boy, Jackson motioned for Nathan, get down to the barn and clean these blades, he pointed to the one on the ground and the one in Nathans hand, and, I recommend you practice for tomorrow. The big man turned and left, following in his sons footsteps.
You did real good, Nathan, John slapped the young boy on his shoulder, not realizing hed hit his wounded arm. John looked at the blood on his hand and then back to his fathers slave. The blood was red just like his own. You get a chance to look at those books?
Oh, yes sir, Nathan replied, speaking up for the first time.
Remember to keep them well hid.
When you fight with my father tomorrow, watch him close hell teach you more than youll ever imagine. He watched as Nathan nodded again. He may be an arrogant and mean, but hes a smart man who knows what he wants learn from that.
Im leaving tonight, heading up north to join up with the abolitionists, he looked towards the big house, figure Ill have more use there. He tried to hide the pain he was feeling behind his smile, but it was obvious he had to leave. He started to move away and then stopped, unsure of what to say, he tipped his head to Nathan and then continued on.
Nathan watched him go. John had been the first white man to show him any kind of respect and in turn, Nathan respected him. He looked at the cut on his arm. Thankfully it had stopped bleeding, but his shirt was ripped and it wouldnt be easy to fix. However, considering the alternative, it wasnt so bad.
Nathan ran his fingers over the letters in the fabric book John had given him. He sounded out the letters carefully, as indicated by the object starting with the letter. Most were easy; A for apple, B for Book, and C for cat, but it was the Y for yam that had him confused for a bit. The picture did not look like a yam. And then there were the letter Q, that one confused him because it sounded like K. It really didnt matter though, and Nathan spent hours just sounding out the letters and writing them with his finger in the dirt when nobody was around.
His goal was to be able to write his name, easier said than done. He came up with all kinds of creations, but he understood the beginning and the end. It was the middle that confused him. The thick book John had given him turned out to be much harder to read. Some of the words were long and took a lot of time to sound out, but he eventually managed. He didnt have the opportunity to learn from someone else, because there wasnt anyone else around that could teach him. Not his father, or any of the other slaves he was alone in his teaching.
Nathan could read, and nobody could take that away from him. He taught himself, learned the alphabet and how to write them. Though he didnt have any pens or paper to practice on he did have all the land in the world to apply his newly learned letters.
John had been right when he told Nathan that his father could teach him more than he could imagine, though it probably wasnt Master Jacksons intentions. Dueling with rapiers became part of Nathans daily routine, first with the plantation owner, and later with his son. Manning still fought with his anger, allowing his temper to take control. Nathan, ever the patient soul, allowed the older boy to wear himself out. He always did. Master Jackson, however, was a much more skilled fighter, relying on his knowledge of the skill. He wasnt out to kill his opponent, but rather build up his own talent, and Nathan was the perfect partner.
There were a few scars from the blades that came in contact with Nathans skin, but they were minimal. Mostly the scars rested on his arms, and the indentations eventually puffed up and turned a shiny shade of russet before shrinking down and getting tight.
Obadiah knew his son was risking his life everyday, fighting with men that would just as soon kill him, than treat him like a human being. However, he was seeing some changes in his boy. Changes that would make him stronger, and possibly one day get him killed. Nathan had never been a boy that liked to succumb to someone elses desire. Though hed been taught to be submissive, it just wasnt in his nature. Obadiah knew that his son wouldnt always be so willing to obey the orders that were directed to him. One day, for one reason or another, those orders would stop.
Nathan was filling out, becoming more of a man each and everyday. He had his mothers strength, and hopefully that strength would only be built over the years and not extinguished, like his mothers had been. There were great things destined for Nathan, Obadiah was sure of it. And he knew his son would do everything possible to find that destiny.
The sound of dogs barking woke everyone from their beds. As the slaves left their houses they could see burning torches in the distance, moving like fireflies in the night. Master Jackson was after a runaway slave. They all knew it.
Children huddled close to their mothers while the men looked on, hoping and praying for the one on the run. Whether the man escaped or got caught, the rest of them would suffer. As the flames of the torches got closer the men motioned for their families to move back inside.
Master Jackson, Nick Ivey, and several others gathered in front of the houses. Ben Jackson, the man whod tried to escape, was tied and had been forcefully brought back to the plantation. His feet were bare and bleeding and his shirt had been vehemently removed from his body.
Tie him to the whipping post! Master Jackson ordered. He walked in front of his slaves, reminded them of a cat on the prowl. You! He pointed to Nathan, and several other young slaves. They were being forced to watch. Jackson ordered the rest of his slaves back into their houses.
Manning stood back with an evil grin on his face. He knew what was coming, and he wanted these slaves to know their place. Doctor Mayfield from town said that its a disease of the mind that causes these niggers to want to run away, he said, looking at the men standing around. All of them agreed. He also said that the only way to cure it to whip the devil out of them.
Heard that myself, Nick Dashal replied. Though, if it were a cure you wouldnt need my services. He smiled behind a chuckle. Plantation owners from all over the county would hire him as a Professional Slave Breaker.
Nathan watched and listened as these men talked amongst themselves as though he and those like him were inconsequential. Ben was now tied to the whipping post. Previous scars marred his back giving it a leathery appearance. He didnt fight the restraints, but rather stared straight ahead anticipating his punishment. Nathan looked at him in confusion and respect Ben Jackson was so strong. Hed been beaten before, many times before, and he still risked his life to be a free man. Why? Did he know the stories of the free black man were true? Was it worth risking his life to obtain?
When Dashal brought the whip up, Nathans back went tight, feeling as though it was his own body being assaulted. He knew in his heart and mind that the sounds of leather striking flesh would stick with him for the rest of his life. He watched as old scars were reopened and new ones were made. Ben never made a sound as his back was brutalized. Blood was flung like droplets of rain with each swing of the whip.
The memory was tattooed in Nathans mind, and nothing would free him of it. The lashing seemed to continue for lifetimes. Ben had long since passed out from the pain of it, but the lashes persisted. The slave hunters and Master Jacksons men continued to talk as though nothing was happening around them.
Finally, like the end of a storm, the whipping stopped. Dashal then wrote out a bill and handed it to Master Jackson, who then paid seventy-five cents for services rendered. Ben was removed from the whipping post by two other slaves and then quickly taken to his house where he would spend the next few weeks recovering if he didnt die. Master Jackson wouldnt tolerate a slave being ill for very long.
The men moved forward, heading to the big house, talking about trivial things. To them this was simply a reason to get together, but to the slaves it was entirely something else. Nathan wiped his hand over his face and sighed, this wasnt the life that was meant for him.
Ben didnt survive the night. Whether it was the injuries inflicted upon his body or the desire to stop fighting, the slaves saw his death as another murder. Nathan hadnt known him personally. Hed worked in the backfields, and on a plantation with over 1000 acres of land and over 400 slaves it was difficult knowing who everyone was. But it still didnt make the pain of it any less.
It wasnt until the working day finished that they were able to bury him. The master wouldnt permit time taken out of the day to bury a slave. No, he left that up to their own people. It wasnt until days or weeks later that a funeral celebration would occur. It wasnt the kind of funeral where people cried, wept, or grieved at. Instead, it was where a life was celebrated. This was where everyone who knew or knew of the deceased sang, drank, and danced the dead to heaven. They werent celebrating death, but rather freedom.
Nathan removed his shirt, as he got closer to the riverbank. He tried to ignore the healing wounds on his arms, future scars that would remind him of his past. It was late, and the light of the moon guided his way. He was here to take a swim, ease his mind of the pains and memories he felt.
John had been the only white man who had showed him any kind of respect. He actually took the time and the chance to teach him a skill, and then gave Nathan the opportunity to learn to read. There was a whole new world in the books hed received. Like John, there were more people out there who felt that slavery was unjust. There was a world within his reach, and he wanted to grab a hold of it.
Nathan let the cool water rise up to his shoulders, and then let the weight of the world wash from his body.
The older he got the more he learned about himself and the people around him. Nathan loved his father, loved him more than he could ever imagine, but he hated his fathers submissiveness. Obadiah never spoke of his past with his son, he never told the stories of how he got the scars on his back, or the brand on his arm. Nathan had always wondered about them, but he knew better than to ask. There were certain things that a child knew not to ask a parent.
The water seemed to glisten under the light of the moon. Each ripple seemed to have a life of its own, even as it disappeared into the waters edge. Nathan tried to compare the scars on his own arms to that of his fathers, but he couldnt, simply because he didnt know how. At thirteen years of age he didnt understand the consequences of having ideas. Hed seen punishments inflicted on fellow slaves that had tried to escape, or slaves that had disobeyed an order. But werent the punishments appropriate for doing what one felt as right?
Trying to escape was worth the risk of capture wasnt it? Men like Nick Dashal, a Professional Slave Breaker, who would hunt down runaway slaves and then punish them at the masters request. What did he know about being chained like a dog, or beaten until he couldnt stand? What did any of them know?
Emily Jackson was a fourteen-year-old slave girl who had been purchased during the first summer month. The master had purchased her for the simple reason of matching her with one of his field hands. Her wide hips and strong build told Master Jackson that shed be able to have several children during her lifetime.
She quickly found a strong friendship with Nathan. It was only at night that they could get together and talk, sometimes they went swimming, and other times they just watched for shooting stars. She wanted many of the same things Nathan did, and they talked about it openly. Emily was afraid of getting married, not wanting to bring a child into the world as it was. She, like so many like her, had been separated from her family, pulled away like a newborn calf from its mother. No, she wouldnt bring a child into the world of slavery. She wouldnt raise her sons to become field niggers or her daughters to become house niggers. However, if she didnt produce children her fate was uncertain. She could once again be sold or even worse forced into relations with white men. Barren slaves were useful that way; mulatto children werent any better than the women that bore them.
Nathan, a year younger than Emily, was quickly developing his first crush. She was so open compared to the others, and they had so much in common. Nathan had friends, boys his own age that he spoke with, but he didnt have anyone he could truly talk to. She was someone who wasnt afraid to be open about their desires about freedom. If a slave were caught even speaking of the issue punishment would ensue.
Master Jackson had chosen his best slave, Mark, as Emilys husband. Nathan knew little of the man other than, other than he worked exclusively with the small herd of cattle. Mark was a legend in his own right when it came to dealing not only with the beef animals but the dairy as well. Hed been married once before, but his wife had died of cholera during an outbreak in the summer of 49. He would have been matched for a new wife sooner except Master Jackson was looking for the perfect wife.
Emily had been fortunate enough to meet with Mark on several occasions. Emilys job was cooking with several other women for the slaves. Standing over a fire cooking corn meal wasnt as hard as working in the fields but it was just as tiresome.
Nathan looked at his father. They were two of the six slaves that were able to attend the wedding. Master Jackson stood off to the side, just to insure that everything went smoothly. The pastor, a pudgy little fellow with bright curly red hair, would marry anyone at any time for the right price. He lived up to the old adage that God created whisky to keep the Irish from ruling the world. Emily stood next to Mark, looking younger than she really was simply because the man she was marrying was so much older.
until death or distance do you part, Pastor Hicks finished, and then he reached into his jacket pocket and took a long drink from his flask. He quickly placed his Bible in his coat pocket and walked over toward Master Jackson.
Nathan looked at his friend and saw nothing other than loss. She wasnt happy to be a bride. Master Jacksons voice sounded off letting the slaves know to get back to work. Though the ceremony was short, at least they were able to have one. Mark headed towards the corrals where the cattle were at and Emily went back to work in the slave kitchen.
Obadiah placed his hand on his sons shoulder and pushed him towards the barn. He knew the disappointment his son was feeling, having been there himself. Nathan would get over it, get over the pain of feeling like nothing more than a piece of livestock. One day hed understand that his feeling were just that, feelings, something that hed have to keep hidden. Obadiah wished it wasnt like that, but it was. They were slaves, not human beings who deserved the right to cry, mourn, or even fight back. He knew his son was a passionate soul who wouldnt learn that lesson quickly.
I have to finish with the stables, Nathan said, moving slowly away from his fathers grasp.
Obadiah nodded: Be careful.
Nathan rushed for the stables. Hed been given the job of keeping the horses groomed, fed, and the stalls well cleaned because it kept him close to the house. The master and his son didnt like to walk any further than they had to in order to find him so they could practice their sword fighting.
Working with the horses was in many ways a great deterrent from thinking only about the confines of his life. The gentle beasts, much like himself, were forced into daily labor with little to no rewards. They didnt ask for anything in return. Everyday it was the same thing, pulling plows, carriages, wagons, or long rides through the countryside. Objects like bits, whips, and spurs were used to make them obey. Unable to roam freely, they were confined to small stalls and only allowed outside when the master saw fit to let them out. Yes, so much like himself. He was treated like an animal simply because of the color of his skin.
Boy, one of the stable hands called to Nathan.
Nathan looked up and greeted Silas, Master Jacksons head stable slave. Silas was a big man who could intimidate the Devil himself. However, there was a certain wisdom he always seemed to express without even trying. Older than most of the slaves on the plantation, hed been married five times and watched as all his wives had been sold off or died. His children, fourteen in all, had been sold off to surrounding plantations like prized beef. Silas had forgotten more about being a slave than most would ever learn. Ripped from the arms of his mother when he was a child, and then brought to this country and sold into bondage.
It wasnt until Master Jackson purchased Silas, that he found some stability. He knew more than anyone how harsh a master could be at times, having the scars on his body to prove it. He also knew that Master Jackson was relatively mild when it came to punishing his slaves. After all, someone had to have raised John to be the strong individual he was, and if children were a representation of the parents there was some good in Master Jackson somewhere. Silas had taught John about horses, and how to handle them. Silas knew before anyone that John wouldnt stay and take over the plantation. He didnt have what it took to own people. He didnt even have the strength needed to discipline a horse that got out of hand.
I need you to take Mrs. Jacksons little mare out and walk her for a bit, he ordered, moving toward the tack room. Shes colicky, and I dont want her goin down in her stall.
Yes, sir, Nathan responded, heading off toward Candys stall.
Nathan! Silas yelled, stopping the boy in mid stride. If Toby is out there fixin fence you stay clear of im. I dont want no trouble twixt you boys.
Nathan nodded, and then headed back for the horses stall.
Candy was a little gray mare that could hardly be called a horse. Her stature resembled more of a pony than that of a horse. She couldnt be compared to the massive, majestic, and wondrous horseflesh that the barn harbored, being that she was in a class all of her own.
Nathan quickly haltered the little mare and led her out of her stall. Sweat had gathered along her neck and flanks and she tried incessantly to kick at her belly. Nathan couldnt help but feel sorry for the little mare. Shed always been so easy to handle and she never made a fuss when the masters wife wanted to go for a short ride. It was as if the two had been perfectly made for each other.
Master Jackson didnt care for the little horse, saying that she wasnt of the standards that this plantation represented. However, Mrs. Jackson, never one to demand anything for herself demanded that the little mare have a stall all to herself and have only the best of care. Mrs. Jackson won the short-lived argument.
Nathan smiled, remembering back when Candy had first arrived. He saw Anna Mae Jackson sneak out of her house with a handful of sugar cubes, and he saw her feed the little mare the treats; hence the name, Candy. He didnt understand the depth of what Candy meant to the masters wife, how could he, he only knew that the little gray mare with kindest eyes belonged to the Mrs.
Candy continued to kick at her belly, tossing her head in frustration. Not even the lush green grass beneath her hooves could entice her to eat. Nathan continued to lead her around in circles, not allowing her to lie down. He knew that her insides were plugged, probably from the hay shed been eating as of late. He reached up and patted her head. She gently pushed into him, looking for some sort of comfort in her time of need. Nathan sighed, wishing he could do more.
Bring her here, Silas called from the gate of the corral.
Nathan led Candy to where he was ordered and watched. Silas grabbed a long tube, and then forced it down the little mares throat. She protested at first, but Nathan quickly twitched her nose and the tube slid down her throat easily. The bucket full of mineral oil caused the young boy to cringe. He didnt need to know a whole lot of anything to know what too much mineral oil could do. With practiced ease Silas poured the oil down Candy then quickly removed the tube.
Keep er walkin. Ill be out in a bit to check on er. Silas grabbed his bucket and tube then headed back for the barn, leaving a confused Nathan in his wake.
How is she? Asked a soft feminine voice.
Nathan looked up and quickly looked back down when he realized it was the masters wife. He wasnt expecting the strong foreign accent she spoke with.
Its all right, child, she reassured. Im only inquiring about Candy. She reached through the fence and with a gloved hand gave the little mare a pat on the neck.
Yes, maam, Nathan responded shyly.
I heard my son, Manning, say she was sick I was just wondering how bad she was?
Silas says its colic.
Is that bad? Anna Mae asked softly, turning her attention back to her horse.
She wont die will she? The woman turned and looked hard at Nathan.
Dont rightly know maam, Nathan replied honestly.
Randolph doesnt like her, says shes a dreadful depiction of Plethora. She sighed, and then continued, But I think shes a diamond in the rough. She reached out and gently lifted Nathans face to hers. Like so many things. Anna Mae smiled, and then turned and headed slowly back towards the house.
Nathan watched her go, feeling somewhat confused by her words. Though her hands had been gloved she had actually touched him. He turned back to Candy and immediately started leading her around the corral.
Psssst, someone hissed between clutched teeth.
Nathan brought his head up and looked around the corral for the sight of the sound. It was getting dark and hard to see. He smiled when he saw Emily rise up from the bushes. She looked around before crawling through the corral panels and then headed to where Nathan was standing. Her hair had been covered with a dark cloth and her usually loose clothing had been secured around her body.
Whatre you doin? Nathan asked, keeping his voice down.
Theres a group of us were plannin on runnin
No, Emily responded sharply. A week from now. Her eyes expressed her hope of freedom. Do you want to go? She almost pleaded.
Nathan looked around, not wanting anyone to over hear them. Yes, he answered honestly. He did want to go, it was what he wanted more than anything in the world freedom.
Emily nodded, and with a grin adorning her face she quickly sped away. She didnt want to get caught before she had the chance to run away.
Nathan watched her leave, a thousand things moving through his mind like a moving train. Where would he go? What would he do? Would he even make it? And then there was the question no slave wanted to ask themselves. What would happen if he got caught?
Candy stopped suddenly, causing the young man leading her to tug on her lead. She grunted once, and then raised her tail. The mineral oil had worked, Nathan chuckled, not surprising considering how much Silas used. It wasnt long before Candy was munching lightly on the lush green grass at her hooves.
Hows she doin? Silas asked, walking from the barn.
Better, Nathan replied with a smile, letting the mare continue to eat.
Let her eat all the grass she wants, he ordered, giving the horse a comforting pat on the rump. Tomorrow mornin when you come to feed the stock, bring her out here to eat grass instead itll keep er from colicin again.
Yes sir, Nathan replied. He looked at the man that had, in many ways, earned the respect of several men, including whites. His ability with horses was well known, and what Nathan had just witnessed was only confirmation of Silas unique talent.
Planning an escape was bad enough, but actually going through with one could cost the participants their lives. If caught, punishments could include whippings, beatings, and many times being tied to a post for days on end. Like Ben, death was just something that happened. The only ones who mourned would be the family, not the master.
Because Nathan was working in the stables and many times his time was spent sparing with the master and his son, he didnt get the opportunity to learn the escape route. The directions were passed through songs that were sung on the fields. Slaves didnt get the opportunity to meet and discuss things. They had to rely on their voices, and creativeness.
come with us Nathan urged, grabbing his fathers arm. The escape was planned for tonight.
Obadiah looked hard at his son, wanting to run with him, wanting so much to take that chance. But he couldnt. His boy was turning into a man, and he couldnt stop that from happening. Nathan was fourteen now, old enough to choose his path in life. I cant, he said softly, regretting the very words.
The words cut Nathan to the bone. The fact that he hadnt seen his sisters and hadnt had the opportunity to ask them to join him hurt bad enough, but his father refusing to go along with him hurt. Nathan had lost his mother already; he didnt want to lose his father as well.
Please, Nathan begged, his brow was pinched and his eyes expressed the sorrow he was feeling.
I cant, Obadiah said, with more conviction.
Nathan stood back and looked at his father. Obadiah would always be a slave. Even if, by some miracle, the world changed and slaves were freed, hed still have the mentality of a slave. Do what he was told, act like he was beaten, and expect poor treatment. Nathan knew his father had been born into slavery, and like so many of them, hed never known the pure feeling of being free. Did he even want to be?
Ill come back for you, Nathan swore to his father, as well as himself. With nothing more than the clothing on his back the young man rushed from the small hut and towards the distant river.
Obadiah watched his son rush away. Hed always known that his boy wouldnt willingly stay under someone elses control. His heart ached, feeling as though it weighed more than the world. A sudden pain had taken up residence there, causing his chest to feel tight. He didnt want to lose his son, hed lost so much already, but this was Nathans dream and Obadiah knew he wouldnt step in his sons way to achieve it.
Nathan rushed for the river. His bare feet struck the ground splattering mud and debris. Shoes would make too much noise. Branches scraped his arms and face as he ran by them, his only thought lay with getting to the river getting free.
There were only five of them, including Nathan and Emily. Emilys husband was not one of the ones escaping. Everyone looked to the light of the moon for their guidance. They intended to swim downstream and then separate, making it more difficult for the master to track them down. Though it was summer the water still bit at their skin causing Goosebumps. Mud slid between their toes and their clothing grew heavy with weight of the water.
The tops of the trees on either side of the river seemed to glow under the light of the moon. Thankfully the night sky was clear and full of bright stars it seemed so peaceful. The waters surface glittered and sparkled under the moons rays, increasing with every ripple that was caused by the runaways movements. It was only the subtle sound of water sloshing against the riverbank and frogs croaking in the distance that filled the air.
As though time stood still: when they reached the spot in the river that forked, men with lanterns and dogs stood on either side of the riverbank. Just waiting. Nathan looked in shock at the sight, theyd been waiting for them, and like untrained sheep, they didnt even realize what was happening until it was too late.
Shots filled the air causing everyone to stop. Ropes were then thrown into the water to pull the runaways out. Dogs barked frantically and horses nickered causing the air to echo their sounds. Nathan fought hard as a rope was lassoed around his neck. He grabbed at it, wanting to keep it from cutting off his air. Water covered his face and blurred his vision as he was forcefully pulled from the river. He could hear Emilys cries and screams in the distance, as well as everyone elses.
Ropes were placed on Nathans wrists after he was hauled from the water. Someone grabbed him and forced him to the ground next to the other slaves that had been captured. He tried to look for Emily but he couldnt see past all the commotion. Everything seemed to be happening so fast.
Get em up and back to the plantation, a deep voice ordered.
Nathan felt the rope that was tied around his wrists tighten and he was forcefully pulled to his feet. The others were also pulled up, and like animals they were made to walk behind the horses. He didnt know why but a dreadful feeling filled his stomach. He knew what was coming for himself, but Emily
Nick Dashal sat astride his large bay gelding, looking as though the job wasnt of any consequence to him. He spoke casually with another man who continuously stroked his long gray beard. Dashal held in his hand the long bullwhip he used to break slaves. Though it didnt look to have been well used from a distance, Nathan guessed that he would be able to see and feel dried blood on the carefully braided leather.
Lanterns burned from the plantation houses and slave quarters as they moved closer. Nathans heart beat faster and harder in his chest. It was the look in his fathers eyes that he dreaded more than anything. He would survive the lashing, the humiliation, but the fear his father would express frightened him.
Master Jackson was waiting in front of the whipping posts. All of them were going to get used tonight. The slaves who hadnt run were standing out in front of their houses. Fear gripped their very souls.
Tie them! Master Jackson yelled, causing everyone to jump.
Everything seemed like a blur as Nathan was forced up against the post. His hands were then tied above his head, and he rested his cheek on the rough wood of the post. He didnt watch as the other slaves that were with him were tied in the same manner. Now, he understood the mindset Ben had been in before his whipping.
There was no doubting that Nathan was scared. Every muscle in his body seemed to shake, muscles that he didnt even know he had cramped and shuddered uncontrollably. As his shirt was ripped violently from his back he could feel the warm summer wind caress his skin, like the velvety feel of a rabbits fur. He couldnt hear the voices around him, the orders being shouted, or even the sound of tears being shed. The only thing Nathan could hear was the sound of his own heart beating frantically in his chest, and the quick breaths entering and exiting his mouth. The world seemed to spin, and even before the first lash struck Nathan succumbed to darkness.
A bone-shrieking cry echoed in the air after Dashal dumped a bucket of salt water on Nathans back. He pressed his forehead to the ground and tried to take a deep breath. His fingers dug into the ground as the pain crawled like ants over his tormented skin.
May hurt, boy, but itll keep you alive, Dashal said, watching as two slaves moved to either side of Nathan. They picked the boy up and carried him into the house he shared with his father then returned for the others.
Master Jacksons slave, Mark, stood beside him, not looking pleased with himself, but slightly ashamed, hed been the one to notify the master of the others plan to escape. Emily had been caught, beaten, and raped. She lay on the ground looking at nothing her spirit was crushed. Things had taken a terrible turn.
One slave was dead, and the rest had to be carried back to their houses. Mark picked his wife up and carried her to their home. He tried to ignore the eyes on his back as he moved away, the eyes of slaves who saw him as a traitor, and the eyes of the whites that saw him as a reliable nigger.
Obadiah placed a cold cloth on his sons butchered back. The wounds would eventually turn into dark leathery scars, horrible reminders of his failed attempt at freedom. Nathan continued to choke back sobs as the clothes were removed and then quickly replaced. His skin felt as though it were crawling off his body, and when moisture connected with dried salt it caused the muscles in his back to seize as each drop of the substance entered an open wound.
Its good that they dump the salt on yer back, Obadiah said, trying to comfort his son in anyway he could. Itll help fight the illness that follows youll be back on yer feet in no time.
I cant live like this, Nathan wheezed, past clenched teeth.
This aint the time for that, alls you got to do is get well, Obadiah reassured, not wanting his son to quit fighting.
I cant be nobodys nigger no more.
You listen to me, boy, and you listen good. Obadiah leaned over his sons back and whispered into his ear, This aint the time or the place for this kinda talk. If you wanna be a free man, you gotta act when the time is better! His words were strong, and penetrating.
Nathan grasped his fathers hand for support. One day, and not far from now he would be free.
The Civil War was in full force. The Souths rights were being challenged and Southern men from all over were gathering together to fight against the Northern aggressor. If a fight was what they wanted the South intended to be ready no matter the cost.
Nathan looked up from the anvil, his large powerful frame covered in soot and sweat. He would intimidate even the bravest of men. He was twenty-one years old now, stronger than he was a few years ago, and much smarter. Because of his size and strength hed been placed in the blacksmith shop. There he was learning about metals, shoeing horses, and repairing anything that was requested of him. It was here that hed made his fist knife, a knife that was stuck inside his boot, a knife he was growing more skilled at handling, and eventually, that knife would help him escape. At night, when he was alone he could throw the finely crafted piece of metal and hit anything that he put his mind to. Hed even killed a few rabbits, which made for nice suppers, for his father and the other members of the house.
As a boy, Nathan had always been good with his hands. He was steady, patient, and sensitive compared to many others who lacked those finer qualities. His talent had earned him the ability to work outside of the fields. Even after his failed escape. The lashing had been a turning point in his life. It made him stronger, more determined, and more willing to take a life to achieve his freedom.
Master Jacksons son Manning had left a year ago and was attending West Point, already choosing the direction his life would take. No one had heard from John in years, the only reason Nathan knew that was because of his relationship with Silas, who, in many ways was the eyes and ears of the plantation. The masters wife, Anna Mae, had become more of a recluse, locking herself in her room. She would only come out in the dead of night to visit Candy or so it was said. Master Jackson never paid her any attention; his priority lay with the plantation and its future.
Nathan struck the red-hot horseshoe, bending it into its proper shape. The heavy sounds of metal striking metal somehow reminded the young man of shackles being broken. Funny, how his mind would wander while working.
Hed been planning another escape for months. This one would be successful. He kept everything to himself, never telling anyone. Every morning he woke up and walked to the shop for work, he would pass Emily. A heartrending reminder of a past hed like to forget. She was nothing but a shadow of what she used to be. She simply spent her days sewing clothing made from Negro cloth, cloth that was woven in Northern spinning mills. Gone was Emilys desire for life, now, her four children, all boys, worked at her side. The ones that were old enough cleaned buckets, and the others aided their mother with the long pieces of fabric.
Nathan hadnt spoken to Emily since that dreadful night so many years ago. Hed not been allowed, and shed been unable. She hadnt uttered a word in over five years. Though it hadnt been Nathans idea to try and escape that night, he still felt responsible. Emily wasnt the same person she once was, at twenty-one years of age she looked and acted like she was over a hundred.
Nathan looked at the night sky and with his hand grasping the knife he held he thought about his next move. The weapon was the only thing he had to protect himself, it was the only thing he had that he could call his own. Even his father belonged to someone else. With care, Nathan had wrapped the handle of the knife with the treated hide of one of the rabbits hed killed. It made the weapon easier to hold and control. It wasnt beautiful by any standards but it was effective.
Obadiah looked at his sons back, knowing exactly what was going through his mind. Like a story proverb, Obadiah had always known his son would fight the restrictions of slavery. Hed fight with whatever he had. Nathan was leaving it was just a matter of time. Like most parents, he worried. He worried about his sons fate. What if he didnt make it? What if he did? What would become of him? Would he ever see his son again?
Slowly, Nathan removed his shoes and stood up on the warm ground. Winter was well on its way, and he knew he had to leave soon, or he wouldnt be able to make it at all. Dressed in only an old pair of pants, and a loose fitting shirt, he turned to look at his father. Words didnt need to be spoken. It was as though their minds connected for a brief moment and they knew exactly what each other were thinking. Perhaps the last moment they would ever see one another.
I have to, Nathan said softly, raising his eyes to meet his fathers.
I always knew you would, Obadiah responded knowingly. He wasnt a fool.
Come with me, the pleading in Nathans voice broke his fathers heart.
I cant, he looked down at his rough callused hands, Ill only slow you down.
Ill make it this time, daddy, I swear to God I will.
Obadiah looked hard at his son. There was the determination he needed in order to survive. Something deep down inside told this father that his son would make it, he would survive, he would become a free man.
When you get free Obadiah held back, trying to cover the tears in his voice, dont you dare come lookin for me or your sisters. It was an order, not a request.
Theyll kill you for sure, Obadiah interrupted. Id rather go to my grave believing that youd made it, than knowing you didnt. He shook his head. You find a new life, and you make good on what fate has in store for you. A single tear fell from his dark brown eye. If its Gods will Ill see you again, a touch of pride laced his words. I aint never been proud of much in my life, aint never had no reason to be but you
Nathan let the tears fall freely from his face, leaving their shinny trails on his cheeks and then landing harshly on his shirt collar.
You make me proud I only hope, that one day Ill do the same for you. Obadiah reached out and grasped hold of his son. He smiled when he felt his embrace returned.
I love you, daddy, Nathan said, behind his tears.
Obadiah smiled: I love you too, son, he said softly.
Nathan stepped back, away from the house and took one last look around. This was it. He was leaving. He nodded his head in his fathers direction, looking for that last look of approval, and then he rushed for the riverbank. He was leaving everything hed ever known, exchanging one world for the next. This time, he was going to be a free man.
To a slave on the run, the worst sound in the world was that of a dog barking. A sound that most people took for granted, something to be expected, and many times ignored. But to a slave it meant being hunted, captured, or possibly killed. Trees became hideouts, sleeping areas, and many times an escape route. Running at night insured a longer distance of travel with less visibility to the hunter, and sleeping during the day insured some rest with more visibility for the hunted.
Nathan didnt have a compass or a map, so he relied on the stars to tell him where he was headed, and the time of night it was. Though a full moon made it easier for him to see where he was going, it also made for being discovered that much easier. Thankfully, there werent many. Nathans knife became his life source. He hunted with it, killed with it, and many times fixed his own wounds with it. He relied on everything hed ever learned everything.
Never eat anything a dog wont eat, and never drink water a horse wont drink. Silas had taught him that. To a slave on the run it was the only rule you didnt break. Being that it was fall, water wasnt as much of a challenge to find, however, food could be. Rabbits, birds, of any kind, and any small animal that could be easily killed with a small knife were what Nathan relied on for substance.
Snow covered the ground, something Nathan had never seen before. There was a glorious beauty about the winter months, but at the same time it brought with it a bitter cold. The leaves were gone off the trees and plants, and now it was just bare branches and dead twigs.
Nathan had managed to make some footwear, with many of the hides of the animals hed killed. Hed stolen a blanket that had been hanging on someones clothesline. He stayed warm, as long as he was moving, but the nights were the worst. Without the sun to warm his back and seeing his breath crystallize in the air as he moved onward sent chills through his bones. Only his determination was driving him.
When the distant smell of apples baking captured his attention, Nathan unconsciously started walking towards the aroma. His stomach grumbled in anticipation of eating something anything. Winter had hidden many of the smaller animals, and it had been days since his last meal.
A glow emanated from the cabin window. Only a single mule was standing idly in the corral just adjacent from the home. Not a sound came from anywhere, no dogs, owls, or coyotes. As Nathan got closer to the cabin the sweet smell of apple pie filled the air, his stomach growled louder in response.
Whos there? Came a shout from the cabin door. An older woman with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders and a rifle pointed at Nathan, stood like an angel in the soft light coming though the doorway.
Nathan jumped back not expecting the response. He hadnt thought hed made that much noise. Is just passin through, maam, he said, not wanting to get shot.
Out here? The woman chuckled, obviously knowing more than the stranger. Yous a long way from town, youngin, she lowered her weapon slightly.
Im real sorry to disturb ya. Nathan started to back away.
Ya hungry? The question was sharp, but significant.
Yes, Nathan answered honestly.
The woman lowered her weapon completely and headed back inside her home. She left the door open as she disappeared. Shut the door behind ya, I aint heatin the outside.
Nathan swallowed hard and took a hesitant step forward. Normally, hed just leave, but his stomach was driving him. The stairs creaked when he stepped up onto the porch. The heat from within the cabin caused his skin to respond happily. And the anticipation of food hitting his belly brought another growl from within.
I dont want to be no bother, Nathan said, as he shut the door behind him.
The old woman had a gun belt strapped to her hips and her gray hair had been pulled up onto her head. She didnt say anything as she filled a plate full of food. Sit, she ordered, expecting to be obeyed.
Nathan didnt waist any time responding. Hed been trained that way. Graciously, Nathan took the plate of food and then looked up into the face of the woman who was serving him. She was blind. Her once brown eyes had fogged over. A long scar ran from the center of her forehead to the middle of her right cheek.
Howd you know I was outside? Nathan asked quietly. He waited until she was seated at the table before he picked up his fork and started eating. There were a few things his mother had taught him as a child that he still remembered.
I heard you commin, she responded flatly. Where ya headed? She asked, not holding anything back.
How long ya been on the run? She leaned back in her seat and stared at Nathan, just as though she could see right through him.
Nathan swallowed: Six weeks. Perhaps she was a witch of some kind. Hed seen many rituals and knew of the beliefs that many of his fellow slaves had preformed. Hed never believed in any of it though.
Dont get your britches in a bundle, she chuckled, knowing what he was thinking. You aint the first runaway thats ever passed through this way and you sure aint goin to be the last. She took a long sip of coffee. You know where youre at? She crossed her arms over her chest and waited for a response.
Nathan didnt answer, because he didnt know where he was.
Youre bout 15 miles east of the Kansas Territory. She smiled warmly.
Nathan looked at his plate of food and then back up into the face of this stranger.
In other words, youre almost free The woman stood up and moved around the table. Every step she took, every movement she made was from memory. She knew every move Nathan made simply by the sounds he made. Theres a place out in the barn that you can sleep in therere blankets, some clothing, and some better shoes ya can pick through. Make sure youre ready to go by mornin, then Ill take ya to the border.
Aint no need maam Nathan didnt want to cause her trouble; the food shed given him was already too much.
Gabby an I have taken that trail a hundred times over, an I reckon one more aint goin to hurt none.
The determination in the womans voice was enough to hush anymore protest from Nathan. He finished his plate of food and then stood up slowly. Unsure of his next move, it was as though the older woman knew just what he was thinking. She opened the door and pointed in the direction of the barn. Nathan nodded and quickly made his way toward the place he was going to spend the night.
The wagon bounced roughly over the frozen snow covered ground. Every bump seemed to jar the bones in Nathans back. He hadnt been sure about allowing this woman, who still refused to give her name, to help him. For all he knew she could turn him into the authorities, but there was something about her that he instantly trusted. Shed shown him nothing but kindness, and she seemed to know exactly what he was feeling.
Shed packed him a small bag full of bread and dried meat. The snow on the ground would supply enough water until he reached a safe destination. Thankfully, the barn had been full of clothing, probably from those who had gone before him. His feet were now warm and snuggled comfortably inside a heavy pair of boots. Nathan smiled he was almost free.
The wagon came to a slow stop and Nathan lifted the canvas that had been covering him. Nobody was around. The snow was a bit deeper here, and the trees more dense, but it looked very similar to Missouri.
Keep to this trail and itll take you to a small town called Sawmill, therere some folks there thatll help ya.
Nathan crawled out of the back of the wagon and looked up at the older woman. Can I get your name, just so I can thank ya proper like, when I get the chance?
Its better I dont, the woman said, with a soft smile. You best get she slapped the reins on Gabbys back, while youve got some light.
Nathan stood back as the woman disappeared into the distance. Gabby took the path as though it had been branded into her mind. The old mule walked slowly home. Nathan looked out past the tree line and realized that even though the trail had been covered in snow it was still visible.
For the first time in his life he was free. Now, it was just a matter of changing the way he saw himself he wasnt a slave anymore.
Sawmill consisted of three standing structures and a field full of tents. The sound of an out of tune piano exited the saloon. Only one horse was tied out front with his hind leg cocked in the resting position. Smoke billowed out of the buildings and a few of the tents. Nathan wanted to feel the comfort of warm air on his skin. Alabama could get cold in the winters, but never like this.
Nathan stayed back, not wanting to draw the wrong kind of attention. When he saw a tent flap open and a black man exit, Nathan took a deep breath. He wasnt the only one. He could hear voices coming from within the large tent, mens voices, some were heavy and raised and others were soft and monotone. The smell of beer filled the air, and Nathan, thinking only of getting warm, opened the tent flap and entered.
There aint no way the Union Armys goin to let one of us fight! The big man with a buffalo hide on his back practically yelled.
I done heard that the white folks from round here aint goin to fight in a war to free slaves
Thats what the government wants em to believe, another voice sounded from somewhere in the tent. This is a war on keepin the Union together.
Therere too many of us to ignore! A skinny little fellow stood up on one of the makeshift tables and announced. We can fight! He raised his fist in the air. I got as much right as the next man, and Im a free man.
Were all free men, Leroy one way or another. A grin appeared on the mans face. He reached up and scratched his heavy beard and took another drink of his beer.
Alls we got to do is go back into Missouri and enlist
And risk gettin caught!
Nathan snuck over by the stove listening to the argument. The heat of the oven felt good on his cold skin. Hed never been anyplace with so many free slaves before. In many ways he was feeling awestruck.
Well have the Union Army to protect us! Another man yelled from across the room.
fore or after they whip us?
A younger man, with strong handsome features stood up and cleared his throat. Hed been quiet since Nathan had entered the room, but somehow he managed to grab everyones attention. I just come from Tennessee, and theyre enlistin colored men for the Union Army. Leroys right, therere too many of us to ignore, so theyre lettin us in.
The room went quiet.
They gonna treat us like them white boys?
The young man ignored the question. This is the chance weve been waitin for for a long time. He looked around the room, making sure he made eye contact with everyone. This is our chance to fight for our homes, and our future, he said with true conviction. This war could end slavery, our chained brothers and sisters in the South could be free in no time atall.
What about slave hunters? Nathan asked softly.
The Souths too occupied with the war to come chasin after runaways, the young man answered. Well all wear blue uniforms, and that means we work for the United States of America not some plantation owner wholl whip us every chance he gets.
So the government will own us!
Nobodys going to own us, he sighed in frustration before continuing, This is our choice, ours.
So how we gonna get there? Another man asked, looking curiously around the room.
If Tennessee is part of the Confederacy, how are we gonna get in there to enlist for the Union?
There are Union camps all over the South, the young man answered quickly, then changed the subject to answer the first question, Theres a wagon train of us headin to Tennessee first thing in the mornin.
As though the room was of one mind, everyone sighed. It was a challenge, deciding what to do. Nathan wasnt sure of his next step either. Hed just left the South, and to turn around and head back wasnt something he was sure he could do. But this wasnt just about him. This was about every slave who still remained under someone elses control. This was his chance, and perhaps his only one, to help his mother, sisters, and father.
Ill go, Nathan said, stepping forward.
The younger man turned and smiled. It wasnt surprising to see more men step forward, some as young as seventeen and others as old as fifty. Sometimes it just took one.
Tomorrow morning, the energy level in the mans voice was obvious.
Thirty-five former slaves gathered out in front of the same tent they had met in the night before. They were ready to take the next step in their lives. War. It was a step larger than many might have anticipated, but wherever the path held for them they knew they would be able to handle. Theyd already been through more than most.
A few men rode horses, some sat in one of the three wagons, and the rest walked. The fear of getting captured still hung within many of them, only because the feeling was difficult to relinquish. However, the willingness to fight and the anticipation of fighting something that had held them confined for so long drove their very beings.
Nathan walked steadily next to the wagon that was pulled by the team of mules. He discovered that the younger man who had gotten everyones attention the night before was called Boomer. He refused to be called by the name given to him by his former master, like many of the slaves joining up with the Union. Nathan decided to keep his name, unwilling to lose it. His mother had given him the name Nathan, and that was the only thing he had that shed given him.
There were only two men out of the thirty-five that owned a rifle, and only one of them could shoot very well. However, with their determination and strength of character they quickly taught many others the skill that would keep them alive, one day. Nathan wasnt any different. His skill throwing a knife was enough to start teaching many of the others.
Weapons were made, not purchased. Nobody had enough cash to just buy what was needed, but these men had fought long and hard for the simplest necessities in life and the making of weapons werent any different.
NATHAN! Boomer called, riding up on his appaloosa gelding. He pulled on the reins slowing his horse to a slow walk then slid to the ground, keeping in pace with the train of people.
Nathan looked up, but continued on his way. Questions rushed through his mind like water rushing through a crack in a dam.
Your skill with a knife is impressive. Howd you learn? He walked beside the former slave, having been one himself up until six months ago.
I taught myself, Nathan replied softly.
You aint the only one Boomer started to say, but stopped himself.
Nathan looked up, unsure of what this man was trying to speak.
Boomer cleared his throat, feeling suddenly unsure of himself. I heard from one of the others that youd just crossed the border before joinin up with us?
Yes, sir, I did. Nathan nodded.
You still got family down South?
Again, Nathan nodded.
Boomer reached out and grabbed Nathans arm, pulling him to a stop. Livin in the North aint been that much different than livin in the South. Just because we aint owned dont mean its easier. The people here dont want us hangin around, taken their jobs, and buyin up land. We aint wanted but this war is goin to change things. This is the first time, in our lives, that weve gotten the chance to choose our future. He paused and looked at the men walking toward their futures, by their own choice. I just want to thank you for comin is all I know it aint easy leavin the South only to return, but I swear to you, he looked hard into Nathans eyes, itll be worth it.
I wouldnt be here ifn I didnt think it was, Nathan responded confidently. Something stirred inside him. He knew now, that things were going to change, he didnt know how, but he knew they would. He wasnt a slave anymore, Master Jackson wasnt telling him what to do or where to go. Manning wasnt teasing him, making him feel less than an animal. He could now discover what life had in store for him, and unlike many of the men walking and riding beside him, he wouldnt know what it felt like to be shunned in the North. Not yet anyway. And things would change after the war if they won.