The Reluctant Master, Part 9

The next day, the sun was out, and the sky was a rare unclouded blue. The road took them south again, and the sharp chill left the air. The hills receded into the distance. This was flat land again. The fields were full of dying cotton plants and yellowed corn stalks, but Zeke was hopeful. “Someone made a good crop last year,” he said.

Henry wondered how they would know the place, but it was clearly marked, with a sign bearing the name of Johnson, the former owner, where the driveway met the road. The driveway was short, made of packed dirt, not gravel, and on the land on either side grew tall bushes, their green leaves a little withered in the chill. “Magnolia,” Minnie said. “They’ll be pretty come spring.”

The house was low-slung, only a story tall, made of pine boards, and recently painted white. There were two windows in front, and Henry was glad to see they were glass and not oilpaper. For a small house, it had a wide chimney, built solidly of brick. Along the front of the house stretched a shaded piazza, with enough room for chairs. It would be pleasant to sit there in the evening once summer came.

Zeke stopped the wagon at the front steps, and they all got out, moving gingerly, realizing how stiff and sore they felt. They walked up the front steps, which had gathered dust and leaves in the weeks since Mr. Johnson left. Underneath the debris they were sound. They didn’t creak. Henry opened the door and all of them followed him inside.

They came into one big room, the size of the Hardins’ cabin. The Hardins’ place had been ramshackle, but this house was in good order. The walls had been whitewashed and the floor was swept clean. The windows, bare of curtains, had been recently washed, and the sunlight streamed in.

The hearth, made of brick, easily four feet wide, dominated the room. Next to it was a cast-iron stove and a neat pile of cut wood for fuel. Minnie said, “They left us a kettle and a spider. That’s enough to start with.” Mr. Johnson had also left them a rough pine table and six chairs. Zeke touched the wood and said, “It’ll do for now, but I can make us something better, once we get settled.” On the far wall was a pine cupboard, and inside, there were tin plates and cups, and a set of tin forks, spoons, and knives.

To the right of the main room were three smaller rooms, each with a rough pine bedframe and a mattress stuffed with corn husks. Mr. Johnson’s people had lived in the house with him, and had slept in these rooms.

It would do, for now.

As Minnie unpacked, and as Tom and Luke took Pretty to the barn, Henry and Zeke walked around the place. There were dirt beds directly behind the house, the red soil bare after the harvest, and trees. Henry said, “What could we grow here?”

Zeke smiled. “Kitchen garden. Taters, cowpeas, runner beans, strawberries. And whatever else Minnie might want. Those are fruit trees.” He bent down and picked up fallen fruit. “Plum, and peach, and apple for Pretty.”

Behind the kitchen garden were the cotton fields. Zeke walked through the brush of last year’s plants and knelt in one of the rows between them. He picked up a clump of dirt and rolled it between his fingers. He smiled and said, “It’s loam. A little clay in it, but not bad.”

“Good for cotton, Zeke?”

“Good for cotton, Massa.”

After supper, Henry put on his nightshirt, eased his tired body onto the cornhusk mattress, and pulled the blanket to his chin. He could hear all of his people settling for the night. He now knew that Minnie cried out in her sleep, disturbed by dreams, and he hoped that she would sleep peacefully tonight. He heard Luke and Tom, who shared a bed, squabbling over who was selfish with the covers and who was rude enough to fart underneath them, and he heard Zeke telling them to hush so everyone could get to sleep.

Just before he fell asleep, he heard the rustle of wings outside, followed by a hooting, haunting, yearning cry. Was it the call of an owl? He hoped so.