The Reluctant Master, Part 8

Henry and his slaves stop at an inhospitable place.

When they left the next morning, they followed the road, which meandered and took them north, out of their way. It was cooler than it had been in the low country or in the midland, and the air was no longer damp. The cold was sharp and dry, reminding Henry of a German winter. Minnie and the boys huddled inside their blankets.

They were in the hills now, where sloping plains alternated with outcroppings covered with pine trees. Pretty moved slowly on the hilly terrain. They saw the smallest plantations yet, little pine houses just off the main road. Some of the houses were whitewashed and proud, and some were weathered, almost tumbledown. In the hills, the dirt was too sandy, and the land too uneven, for cotton to grow. These farmers grew corn instead.

Whenever they stopped, Zeke checked the soil. This dirt crumbled through his fingers. “Sandier, Massa. Drier, too. Might be better when it rains.”

“Still all right for cotton?” Henry asked. A farmer’s question. He was learning.

“Believe so. Dirt’s different every few miles. Don’t know what it will be like on your place.”

As they’d come to expect, Pretty determined where they would stop for the night. The hills wearied her more than usual, and she stopped outside the meanest house they had seen so far, a log house not much bigger than a slave’s cabin. A sow wallowed in the front yard, and chickens pecked at the dirt nearby. A mule, tethered to a post, grazed in a patch of scrub.

“Ain’t much of a place,” Minnie said.

Irritated, Zeke said, “If you can drive Pretty onward, we’ll look for another one.”

Henry said, “I’ll ask them if we can stay.” He slid from his seat—good Lord, his backside was sore—and knocked on the door.

A lean, pale man, dressed in a ragged cotton shirt and trousers, opened the door and said, “What do you want?”

“We’re traveling. We’re bound for my place in Cass County, and we can’t go any farther tonight.” The man stared at him, unsmiling. Henry said, “My mule won’t walk another step.”

The man took in the wagon. He said, “We’ll take you, but I won’t have your niggers in the house.”

“Can they stay with your people?”

“My niggers?” the man said, bitterly. “I ain’t got niggers.”

“Where would they sleep?”

“That ain’t my worry,” the man said.

They had finally found an inhospitable place. Henry said, “I don’t want to trouble you. We’ll try to find somewhere else.”

A quiet voice said, “John? Who are they?” and a slight figure in a faded calico dress came to the door to stand next to her husband.

“Travelers. Overseer and his niggers. Don’t want any of them here.”

She was as pale as her husband, and so weary-looking that it was hard to tell her age. It was clear that she was expecting a baby. Three small children clung to her skirt, all of them thin and pale like their parents, all of them dressed in patched, threadbare clothes. “John. They’re all weary. It isn’t right to send them away, or to put them out in the yard.” She had the clean diction of an educated woman. Henry wondered how she had come here, to this poor place. She lifted her eyes to Henry’s face—they were a soft blue, and startlingly pretty—and said, “We don’t have much, but we can welcome you for the night. How many are you?”

“Five, with my servants.”

“We’ll make do.”

He said, “We have food. We’d be glad to share it with you.”

“Thank you. I’m Sarah Hardin.” She gestured to the little ones, still clinging silently to her skirt. “This is Johnny, and Sally, and baby Robbie. And this is my husband John.” John nodded, his whole body rigid.

Minnie, Zeke, and Zeke’s sons followed Henry cautiously into the house. It was about twenty feet square, made of logs and chinked with mud and thatch to keep out the chill. All of the family’s living was conducted in this room. They cooked at the fire in the hearth, ate at the rude pine table, and slept in rickety beds—a frame bed for the adults, and a trundle bed for the children. The windows were covered with oilpaper, which had cracked in the cold.

Sarah greeted them, with her hand over her belly.

Minnie said softly, “Ma’am, it ain’t my business, but how far along are you?”

“Six months.”

“You look bone weary.”

“No, I’m all right.”

Minnie said politely, “You ain’t. If you show me where you keep your spider and your coffeepot I can help you make supper.”

John Hardin stood a distance away from everyone else. His lean body radiated anger. He said, “I won’t take charity from niggers.”

His wife pressed her hand to her belly. She said, “It’s Christian charity, John.”

Henry was too weary to be much of a Jew. He accepted the Hardins’ charity without protest.