The Reluctant Master, Part 1

Every novel, like every movie, has scenes that don't fit in the final story. Henry Kaltenbach's journey from Savannah to his place in Cass County was like that for  my book Slave and Sister. I'm glad to be able to repurpose it here.

After the auction that made him a slaveowner, Henry Kaltenbach had to arrange to transport his slaves from Savannah to his new plantation in Cass County. Mordecai Mannheim, who had lent him the money to buy the slaves and the plantation, told him, “My overseer McKinley can carry them up there.”

Henry watched as McKinley oversaw the work of Henry’s new man Zeke and his sons, who were packing the wagon that Mannheim had bought for him, loading it with the provisions to last them until they could stock up when they arrived in Cassville. McKinley yelled to Zeke, “Watch it, you lazy nigger! Don’t jumble the stuff in there! Pack it careful.”

Zeke said politely, “Yes, Massa.”

McKinley turned his attention to Zeke’s son Tom, who had reached to touch the mule on the neck. “Stop fooling with the mule.”

Tom didn’t move fast enough for McKinley. McKinley cuffed the boy on the head. “You do what I tell you, damn you!”

Henry was upset enough to say to Mannheim, “I don’t want him abusing my people.”

Mannheim shrugged. “You don’t know how to handle them. He does.”

The next morning, Henry sent his trunk to the station, intending to ride the train to Cassville, but he was uneasy enough to stop at the auctioneer’s first.

Zeke, Luke, Tom, and Minnie stood next to the wagon, bunched together, not moving. Their shoulders were slumped, and their eyes were cast down.

They were shackled and chained into a coffle.

Henry had seen slave coffles in the streets of Savannah, slaves bound hand and foot. But seeing his shackles on his own slaves shocked him. Henry Kaltenbach, a Forty-Eighter passionate for freedom, a Jew who remembered liberation from slavery every year, now owned four people who were chained together.

He said sharply to McKinley, “They can’t travel like that!”

McKinley said, “I know they’ll stay put.”

“Take those shackles off.”

“They’ll bolt the first chance they get.”

Shackles were for prisoners. Not for servants. They kept their eyes down, as servants should, but he could see their worry and their fear. He took a deep breath. For all of them to hear, he said, “I trust they won’t.”

“I don’t, and I’m the one toting them.”

“I don’t want you taking them anywhere.” McKinley stared at him. Henry said, “I’ll take them.”

“Mannheim will have my hide if they bolt.”

“I’ll have your hide if you don’t take off those shackles and those chains. Do it.”

McKinley shook his head. He drew a heavy key from his pocket and made a show of unlocking the shackles, first from Minnie’s ankles, in a parody of courtesy, then from Tom and Luke’s, and at last from Zeke’s. Tom bent to rub the skin where the metal had chafed it. “Quit that,” McKinley said bitterly, picking up the shackles and the chains.

Henry said sharply, “Don’t talk to my servant like that.”

Holding the shackles in his hands, McKinley said to Henry, “They’re your property, and you can do whatever you please with them. It ain’t my lookout if you get to Cass County without your niggers.” And McKinley left him alone with his four slaves.

He asked them, “Are you all right?”

No one spoke. The silence was uneasy. His slaves were afraid, and he could feel their fear. Where are we going? What will it be like? They were afraid to ask him. They were afraid even to look him in the face.

What have I done? Henry thought. He was deep in debt for an endeavor he knew nothing about. He would travel into a remote part of Georgia to a place he had never seen, in the company of four strangers he had just bought. He had been beguiled by Mordecai Mannheim, but he had been seduced by his own folly in yearning for a fortune.

He was responsible for these people. He was Massa, to whom they owed a respect heavily tinged with fear. They would watch and assess everything he did, because the conditions of their lives depended on his character. Or his whim. And he felt as frightened and alone as they did.

The provisions, the blankets, and the harness, purchased the day before, had been piled in the wagon’s deep, flat bottom, and planks made into rough seats over the cargo. The mule had been hitched to the wagon.

The four of them climbed into the wagon, and Henry hoisted himself onto the front seat. He had never driven a mule before, but he figured it wasn’t too different from driving a horse. Henry slapped the reins against the mule’s flanks, but the mule didn’t move. He waited, and slapped the reins again. The mule didn’t budge.

Zeke said softly, “Massa?”

He turned around. “Yes, Zeke?”

Zeke kept his eyes cast down. He said, “The mule balking.”


“Don’t know, Massa. Might be scared. Or tired. Or just ornery.”

“How do we get her moving?”

“We coax her along.” He turned to his son. “Tom, help Massa with the mule.”

Tom asked worriedly, “Is it all right, Massa?”

Henry thought of Tom’s smile at the auction yesterday, when he realized that Henry was his new master. Henry said gently, “It surely is.”

Tom said, “Massa, what’s that mule’s name?”


She was pretty, with a coat more brown than gray, and long-lashed brown eyes. When he got her for a hundred dollars, Mordecai said, “There has to be something wrong with that mule, if they’re letting her go so cheap.”

Tom scrambled down from the seat. The mule bared her teeth. Tom said, “Pretty, don’t you bite me. I ain’t going to hurt you. We’re going to get acquainted, just a little, then we’re going to start up and get going. Wherever we intending to go.” He held out his hand. The mule stopped baring her teeth. She stood perfectly still as Tom stroked her neck, talking in a low crooning voice. “You’re a good gal, Pretty. A good gal.” Boy and mule looked at each other. Pretty flicked her ears. Tom patted her nose. “Good gal,” he said again, and the mule nosed his palm. “You want an apple,” he said. “Wish I had an apple for you.”

Tom got back into the wagon. Using Tom’s coaxing tone, Henry said, “Let’s go, Pretty,” and the mule began to move. They stopped at the depot for Henry’s trunk, and then they were on the road that led north and west away from Savannah.