The Reluctant Master, Part 3

Henry and his slaves continue their journey, and Zeke hints at a secret in Minnie's past.

The next day, as they got ready to go, Zeke said, “Massa, the coachman here told me about a road they call the trace. Old Indian trail that’s big enough for a wagon. It run through the woods, and it’s a shorter journey than the main road.” He still couldn’t look Henry in the face, but he no longer looked at his shoes. He said, “Massa, if you don’t mind, I can drive Pretty today.”

“Mind?” Henry said. “I’d be grateful,” and he saw Zeke’s face flicker at the courtesy.

The trace was a sunken road that ran through the forest, wide enough for the wagon, dirt packed smooth by years of use. The trees rose on either side, filtering the light between their trunks. As they traveled away from the coast, the live oaks were interspersed with stands of pine.

It was quiet in the trace. The bugs and the frogs had gone to bed for the winter, and the birds, who didn’t nest in wintertime, were quiet too. The air was damp, not really a rain, but a fine mist. Today Tom and Luke had appropriated Henry’s blanket and covered themselves with it.

Henry sat next to Zeke on the driver’s seat as Pretty maintained a good pace.

“Zeke,” Henry asked, “how long did you live on the Butler place?”

“All my life, Massa. I was born there. I grew up there. I got married there, and my boys were born there too.”

“Where is your wife?” Henry asked, without thinking, then wondered if he’d had the chance to buy Zeke’s wife, and hadn’t.

Zeke said, “She passed on, Massa. Two years ago, when the fever was so bad.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Zeke looked surprised at his sympathy. Henry asked, “Minnie? Did she lose anyone?”

Zeke said in a very low voice, “Tell you later, Massa. Private.”

At midday, when they stopped to eat, Henry gestured to Zeke to walk a bit away from the wagon, out of Minnie’s earshot, and Henry asked about Minnie.

“Her husband was sold away on the Butler place. Before it busted up and we all were.”

“Why? What happened?”

“Marse Butler sold him to settle a gambling debt.”

“Did she have children?” Henry asked, remembering what Minnie had said to him at the auction: “I’m all alone.”

“A little boy. When the fever came through, her boy died.” Zeke’s voice went still lower. “She don’t like to speak of it, and you can’t let her know I told you.”