The Reluctant Master, Part 4

Henry and his slaves stop at a plantation in the Piedmont, where Henry has cause to worry about Minnie.

As they traveled farther west, they took to the road, where they saw the occasional cart, and more rarely, a carriage. The fields were rough with broken corn and cotton plants, but they were empty. “Where are the people?” Henry asked Zeke.

“Harvest over. Everyone indoors. Resting up for plowing.” Zeke looked over the field and remarked, “Massa, the dirt. It’s red! Look at that. Never saw anything like it.”

Henry leaned over the side of the wagon and stared at the red-orange soil beneath the wagon’s wheels. It was heavy and wet, like clay. He said to Zeke, “Can we grow cotton in that?”

“When we stop, I want to look at it.”

“Why can’t we stop now?” Henry asked.

Zeke laughed. “Pretty moving just fine right now. When she move, we move. Don’t want to give her any reason to stop.”

When they stopped, Henry asked Zeke, “What’s wrong with Pretty?”

Zeke considered. Henry, who had been servile behind the dry goods counter, recognized Zeke’s look: he had seen it in his father’s face, and on the faces of the Meyers, father and son. It was the look of a tactful servitor who wanted to save a customer from making a fool of himself.

Henry said, “Did I make a mistake in buying her?”

Zeke said, “I wouldn’t put it that way, Massa.”

“Put it any way you think best.”

Zeke said, “Pretty’s a cotton mule. Small. Low-slung. Bred to pull a cotton wagon from the field to the gin. Now, all your mules are strong in the shoulder and they can pull a burden. But she’s not used to pulling a wagon down the road all day, and she tires, and that’s one reason she balks.”

“Should I sell her, and buy another mule?”

“No, we can use her, come harvest. But you want a plow mule, a dray mule, to pull a plow all day long. Plow mule’s taller and bigger and even stronger in the shoulder. Bred to plow or pull a cart.”

“Where can I find one?”

“Once we get where we’re going, we can stop in town and look for a plow mule. Tom and I can help you. We’ll find you a good strong plow mule with an even temper.”

“What should we do with Pretty until then?”

“Coax her along.” Zeke said, “Massa, I want to look at this red dirt.” He scooped up a handful of the soil and rolled it in his palm. He asked Henry, “Is the dirt red on your place?”

“I think so.”

“Massa, have you been here? Seen it?”

“No, I bought it without seeing it. We’ll all see it for the first time when we get there.”

Zeke said, “If it’s like this, it should be fine. It’s loam, good for growing. Just happens to be red.”

When the lowlands gave way to the Piedmont, the plantations got smaller, and the houses got plainer. In this part of Georgia, a prosperous planter had twenty slaves, a thousand acres, and a two-story house with four rooms on each floor. After they’d been on the road for nearly a week, they stopped at a plantation like that. The owner was a widower named Henderson, whose youngest brother lived with him and acted as his overseer. The place lacked a wifely touch. The rooms were dusty and unswept, and dinner was served by a sullen slave cook. It was the meanest meal Henry had eaten on a plantation, cowpeas flavored with bacon and cornpone alongside.

The Hendersons cared little for their food, but they liked their whiskey, which they made on the place. Henry took a sip, and coughed as the liquor burned his throat. He sipped from his glass, to be polite, as his fellows at the table downed one glass after another.

The widower said, “You don’t drink much.”

“No, sir.”

“You ain’t one of those folks who believes in temperance, I hope.”

“No, sir.” In Germany and in Savannah, Henry was surrounded by people who drank a glass of wine on the holidays and the Sabbath. Henry himself didn’t mind a little brandy, if someone offered it. But he had never known men who drank whiskey as though it were easier to drink than water. He saw why Mordecai Mannheim approved of his sober habits. To use his mother’s dialect word, the one that Jews always used with contempt, these men were shickers, drunks.

Minnie helped the cook clear away the dishes, and the widower eyed Minnie as she walked back to the kitchen. He said to Henry, “I never saw a grown gal so tiny. Is she tiny all over? Under her petticoat, too?”

It took Henry a moment to realize what the man was asking. He said curtly, “That’s none of my business.”

The man said, “Maybe it ain’t now, but you’ll feel different on a lonely night on the place. Until you marry a proper gal, a nigger woman ought to do.”

No wonder Minnie’s eyes were still wide with fear around him. As her master, he could take her in pleasure or take her in violence. As his slave, she could not refuse him.

Icily, Henry told his host, “I wouldn’t take kindly to anyone interfering with one of my people.”

Startled, his host said, “Your property? Wouldn’t think of it.”

He worried for Minnie. After dinner, he asked the cook, “Where are my people staying?”

“In one of them cabins. The one just outside the kitchen.”

The cabins were little houses made of logs roughly thrown together. He went into the one the cook had pointed to, and felt the cold air coming in through the chinks in the walls. The dirt floor was bare. For bedding, his people had spread the blankets over it. They would not be warm enough. “Zeke? Could you come outside?”

On the steps, Zeke asked, “What is it, Massa?”

“Will Minnie be all right here?”

“Think so, Massa.”

“I don’t like these folks much. I don’t want anyone bothering her.”

Zeke dropped his eyes. Henry was learning to read embarrassment on a face too dark to show a blush. “What’s the matter, Zeke?”

“Shouldn’t be bothering a gal that belongs to you.”

Oh, Lord. Blushing, Henry said, “She’s my servant, and at home, we always treated our servants with kindness. Not like that. Never like that.”

Zeke said nothing.

Henry shook his head. “Look after Minnie, and keep her safe.”

Zeke looked up. “I’ll do that, Massa.”