Excerpt from the historical series Eagle and Child, which traces the journey of a young white girl, now 14, from London to the 1820s American South, to be 'purchased' upon her arrival to serve as an indentured servant for however many years it will take to earn her freedom. In this period, indentured servants had much the same status as slaves. But her race will still set her apart from the black slaves at the upcountry South Carolina farm she lands in. This chapter, "Arrival at Bedrock", dramatizes that separateness, which she must—and will—overcome in the course of her journey.
The sun was low in the sky, burning through the leaf cover every little bit, by the time Arden announced that they were getting close. Devon had been thinking for some time that she would likely never walk again; her whole spine was ringing with vibration, ending in two very sore bones against the saddle. The insides of her thighs were rubbed raw; she was sure they must be bleeding. When Arden had asked an hour ago if she'd like to stop and eat some of the dried beef and fruit he'd brought along, she had said no; she hadn't been at all sure she could get off her horse—or on again afterwards.
"Just past that rise there," Arden said at last; and as though his horse knew it was near the end of his journey, it quickened its gait, and Carolina Clay broke into a trot behind it, Devon's bottom slapping the saddle in protest.
Her heart quickened too. Suddenly she was not so sure she wanted to see this place. Bedrock: even the name made it sound harsh, dismal. Maybe it would be like some of those shacks she'd seen coming up the river, the crude huts in the woods, the rice fields full of mosquitoes. Or maybe it would be too grand, with people who'd treat her like the lowliest of servants. Arden might be the only nice one in the family. He had even hinted as much, in his description of his tough, uncompromising father, his unhappy mother, his rude, overbearing brother. And however Bedrock turned out to be, she would be stuck there, with no more right to come and go on her own than this horse she was riding. For two whole years.
And there was that other horror she had been trying to keep from her mind ever since she'd seen those African slaves on that dark ship in the harbor. They too had come in steerage, but had been driven up by the whip, naked, and hosed off like cattle. Maybe her purchasers would never free her at all. She too would become a slave forever.
Then Carolina Clay climbed the last few feet to a break in the trees, and there it was, spread out below her like one of Sissy's miniature villages: a vast expanse of green and russet and golden brown fields lying like squares of a bright quilt on a giant bed. Dotted among them, figures of all sizes squatted in the rows or bent over the long handles of hoes, their backs rising and falling like pulse beats in a human body.
There was a scattering of small log cabins along the far rim of the fields, and at the other end a barn and stables, and a bigger house of the same rough logs, though there seemed to be building going on at its face and roof. On both ends of the property were deep green woods like the one they'd just ridden through. On the far side, the land fell to a creek that glittered in the low sun. Rocky Alison Creek, Arden had called it; and at its far end, Devon could see the bridge he'd told her of, leading only halfway across the creek, its other half burned out like the land beyond it. Land that had originally belonged to the Indians, who apparently had lived here long before any other people, white or black, had come. The sight of the charred black stumps of trees on that land made a shiver run up her arms. Now, Arden had told her, all of it belonged to the people she saw below—although, from all she'd seen and heard since she'd arrived in this New World, it probably belonged a great deal more to some than to others.
"Welcome to Bedrock," Arden said beside her.
"I hope so," she murmured.
Arden's horse began moving down the steep path, and Carolina Clay followed. Devon had to hold tight with both burning knees and grip the saddle horn with both hands to keep from pitching forward over Clay's thick red neck.
The sound of the horses' hooves on rock rang loudly in her ears, like raps on a drum that announced their coming. And sure enough, one head after another began lifting toward them. Some of the figures in the fields straightened, leaning on their hoes, one hand lifted to shade their eyes while they watched the descent. One bent black man in the nearest field removed his shapeless hat and mopped his face with a dark red cloth, then waved both hat and cloth, and Arden raised a hand in response.
From the creek, two black women climbing the embankment also stopped to watch. And from the farthest field, a large white man kicked his horse into a gallop toward them.
"Brace yourself," Arden said, "here comes Sumter."
The man didn't slow his horse as it drew nearer. In fact, he spurred it faster, keeping both eyes and horse aimed directly at Devon, until the horse nearly collided with Clay before the man jerked the reins to haul its head up sharply. The man's cold blue eyes skimmed over her before he said, "And what's this you bringin' us, little brother?"
The man was big-boned, like one of the roustabouts at the London taverns, but his skin was the color of tanned animal hide.
Arden turned toward her, but kept his eyes on Sumter. "Miss Devon Quail," he said, his voice tight, "Sumter Winter."
"Wa-el, wa-el, lucky Pa," the man drawled. "I might be needin' some nursin' myself one of these nights." His eyes reminded Devon of Newgate's on the cold morning of the fox hunt.
"Is Mother here?" Arden asked, loudly and distinctly as though to divert his brother's attention.
"S'pose so," Sumter said, not shifting his gaze. "Whar else'd she be?"
"Come on," Arden said to Devon; and he reached to grab the reins of her horse, leading them both at a fast walk toward the barn.
As they passed closer to it, Devon could see more of the big house. It looked a good deal more colorful than it had at a distance. The dark rough bark of the logs alternated with slabs of red clay, bright in the sinking sun. There was also a low rectangular red brick addition off the back, ending in a huge brick chimney. Against the face of the house stood the skeleton of a porch—still little more than scaffolding, although four finished round columns held up its roof.
Devon leaned her head back as they drew nearer, trying to see the other dormer-like structures being added to the roof. They had windows, but apparently no rooms behind them. A black man in a white shirt was bent over one of the peaks, hammering a newly split shingle to its top. He straightened, turning to take another from a pile at his right foot, and glanced down.
He was the tallest person Devon had ever seen—at least a foot taller than her father. Taller even than her friend Marcus Woldemariam, and as dark. From her high seat on the horse, Devon could see the sweat glistening on his skin, making it look like the shiny smooth chunks of coal that burned the hottest in their stove at home. He had to twist slightly to reach the pile, because his left arm hung bent and stiff at his side. His eyes seemed to see her just for a moment as he stood there; then his long fingers spanned the top shake and he turned back to his hammering, with no sign of having noticed her at all.
By this time though, everyone else on the place seemed to be aware of their arrival, and people were coming from the barn and fields. The old man with the hat was waiting for them as they rode up to the stables that stood next to the barn. He raised his hand and spoke as slowly as he moved. "How you doin', Massa Ahden?"
"Doin' jes fine, Ethan, jes' fine. How you doin'?"
"Wall, you know me," the man said, his eyes the most alive part of his face. "Ah jes' keeps on goin' heah, lak 'n ol' hoss don' know when t' quit th' plow."
"Well, that doesn't sound good," Arden said, his speech quickening again. "You better take care of yourself, Ethan, not push too hard. It's about time for you to retire, isn't it?"
"Don' know 'bout no re-tire-ment," the old man said. "Nobody's gon' ha'vest mah corn ah don't."
"Well, you get one of these good strong boys 'round here to help you," Arden said.
But the man had turned his attention to Devon, and the smile widened across his face. "This ri' purty little lady you got you'self, Massa Ahden," he said. "Li'l young mebbe, but thass good fo' makin' the babies now, ain't it? You' fam'ly c'd use some granchillen."
Arden laughed as Devon frowned. "No, Ethan, she's not 'my' young lady, though I'd be proud to have her. Miss Quail has come to help take care of Pa."
The man looked higher then, his expression becoming more guarded, and Devon turned to see Sumter riding up.
"Reckon ah'll be goin' on t' mah cabin now," the old man said. "Th' laht's 'bout gone fo' the day."
As the old man turned to leave, the children who'd been chasing each other in from the farthest white-dotted field arrived in a laughing, jostling bunch around them, pushing each other and scuffing their bare feet in the straw-strewn dust.
"Git!" Sumter growled, and the children scattered, but not too far. "You got a good hour left 'fore sundown," he yelled at the children. "That's another bag each, at least." Then to no one in particular, "Damn pikkininnies ain't worth the co'n it takes to feed 'em."
But as he moved on to the stables, the children circled back, only an occasional glance toward the stables showing any sign of concern.
Arden dismounted and moved to help Devon down. As she'd feared, her stiff legs couldn't quite hold her, and the children's giggles erupted afresh as she swayed precariously. She grabbed Arden's arm just in time, and tried to cover her stumble by smoothing her skirt, making a futile gesture at brushing some of the trail's dust from her clothes and skin.
"You all right now?" Arden asked.
Devon did not look up to see the grin she knew must be there, but carefully let go of his arm and was relieved to find herself still standing, though she didn't press her luck by trying to move. Her embarrassment was furthered by his telling the children, "This is Miss Devon's first time on a horse."
Arden undid her little bundle of clothes from behind the saddle and set it against a post while he led both horses along the line of open stalls, divided from the barn by the wide path to the fields. The roof over barn and stables was continuous, and looked a good deal newer than those on any of the cabins set among the fringe of woods at this end of the property. Devon followed Arden to get a look at the other horses.
Each stall of the stables had a name carved on its crossbar: Velvet and Stepper and Bones and Augustus. Arden led the horses to the last two stalls, where he was met by a boy about Devon's age.
"Ah'll take 'em, Massa Arden."
"Thank you, Abraham." Arden handed the boy the reins. "And thanks for taking them to Mister Yates'."
"Yessuh. Good to see you, suh."
"Lots of changes going on around here," Arden said, gesturing at the roofs of the barn and house.
The children had gathered around Devon again, jostling each other for position. When Arden rejoined her, she was trying to get the smallest boy to tell her his name.
"Ramy. Aren't you Ramy, Jessie's boy?" Arden said.
"He Lubin," the boy beside him said.
"Jessie doesn't have a Lubin. Does Jessie have a Lubin?"
"Zoe. He Zoe's."
"Ah, of course. And…May? Is that right? And March? And Jonas, right?"
None disagreed with him. Although none agreed with him either.
Devon turned to see a tall lean woman hurrying toward them, her expression a mix of joy and anxiety.
"Mother!" Arden strode to meet her and grasped her hands, kissed her on the cheek. "Mother," he said, leading her over, "I want you to meet Miss Devon Quail. Devon, this is my mother, Eunice Winter."
"Pleased, ma'am," Devon said, dipping a curtsy and extending her hand.
The woman didn't take it. She was big-boned like Sumter, but with none of his high coloring. Her hair was a drab brown, and her skin was pale yet rough, as though habitually exposed to wind and cold but never to the sun. She held her mouth in a thin straight line as she turned to Arden. "She's awfully young, isn't she?"
"But she's had nurse's training, Mother. She's a very fine nurse."
"Actually," Devon began, "I haven't --" But the woman's hard stare made it seem foolhardy to continue. Arden did not, Devon decided, get his trusting nature from his mother.
"The Reverend brought my letter?" Arden asked.
Mrs. Winter nodded, not taking her eyes off Devon.
Arden gave his mother an awkward sideways hug. "You know how you kept writing me what a burden it was, Father and the house and all this." His hand motioned vaguely about the place. "Devon can help. Pa'll-- Father will love her." With one arm around his mother's shoulders, Arden turned her toward the house, scooping up his bag with the other hand.
Devon picked up her own sack and followed, not knowing what else to do.
At the porch, though, Arden motioned behind his back for Devon to wait, and disappeared inside with his mother.
Devon stood where she was, unsure what she was supposed to be waiting for. She touched one of the tall wooden pillars on the half-finished porch, spread her hand on it, then her arms, as far around as they would reach. It was so perfectly round and smooth, its top gracefully shaped, spread like fingers to support the roof to come above it.
Devon leaned back, but couldn't see to the house's roof. Carefully, she backed up on the new brick walk—until the bricks suddenly ended and she stood on hard dirt. There was nobody on the roof now; the man had disappeared.
She gazed about her. From down here, the farm appeared a good deal bigger than it had from above. She couldn't see to the end of the fields to the east, or beyond a stand of naked vines to the southwest. The creek was invisible below its bank. Only the scorched end of the bridge reached into her vision, like a reminder of some aborted attempt at escape.
When she faced forward again, she realized she was no longer alone. Leaning against the corner of the new porch, a tall black girl stood watching. Devon smiled tentatively, but the girl did not respond. She looked a few years older than herself, Devon guessed, sixteen maybe, seventeen, but so thin that the shapeless sack dress she wore hung on her straight up and down. Her thick hair was caught up by a bright blue strip of cloth, and all her limbs seemed to hang relaxed. Yet Devon had an impression that she was posing almost, leaning there, her eyes unreadable, watching the newcomer.
Then Arden came back out the front door. "Come on," he called to Devon, and picked up her sack.
When the girl heard him, her demeanor immediately changed. A wide smile appeared on her face, and her back straightened.
"Funciful!" Arden proclaimed when he saw her, and clasped the girl's arm, holding her off for his inspection. "Look at you, girl, you're practically growed!"
"Sure e-yus," the girl said.
"And how's that garden of yours?" He turned. "Funciful here raises herbs," he told Devon. "And indigo." He lifted the tip of the blue cloth that bound her hair. "See? Funciful makes the bluest blue in all of South Carolina."
The girl's smile hadn't changed the whole time Arden had been talking. But while her head kept nodding slightly to the rhythm of his speech, her eyes were not quite focused on either one of them. In fact, Devon had the uneasy feeling that if she blocked off the sight of the girl's mouth, her eyes wouldn't be smiling at all, any more than they had been before Arden came out.
Devon had reached them then, and Arden put a hand on her shoulder. "But you must know about those things. Medicinal herbs and potions and such. "Devon's a nurse," he said to Funciful. "She's going to be taking care of Mister Winter."
Arden turned Devon toward the rear of the house. "Come on, I'll introduce you to Oretta, Funciful's mama. She's the one really runs this place."
He led Devon to the breezeway that separated the house from the big brick structure in back. He helped her up a steep concrete step, then right along an open passageway and down another step into the large steamy room at its end.
Across from the doorway, a huge fireplace was black with soot, its face hung with iron pots and utensils, a large kettle hanging from a hook over the fire at its center. A short, stout black woman stood at a long table pounding a slab of meat with a wooden mallet.
"Oretta!" Arden cried, and crossed the room quickly toward her, his arms extended.
The woman looked startled, the mallet halting in midair; then her face broke into a grin. "Shoot, boy," she said, "I din't hear you comin', like to scared me to death." She disengaged from his embrace and stood back to look up at him. "Mm-mm," she said, "I don' even know you no more, gettin' to be such a fine man. Pretty soon you won't come 'round 'tall no more, fo'get you' homefolks."
"You know I'd never forget you, Oretta," Arden said, hugging her again. He turned to Devon. "Oretta raised us," he said. "More'n our own ma even."
The woman was looking at her now, and Devon wasn't tempted to step closer.
"Oretta," Arden said, "I want you to meet Devon, Devon Quail."
"Uh-huh," Oretta said.
"Devon's going to help take care of Pa."
Devon thought the woman looked relieved. Maybe she'd thought Devon was being brought to work in her area in some sort of position.
"Ma said to put her in that room off the kitchen. At least for tonight."
"Mah pantry? She spos' sleep in mah pantry?! Where I goin' put all's in there already?"
"Just for tonight, I think."
"I could sleep somewhere else," Devon said quickly. She was anxious not to displease this woman. "I don't need a whole room." Maybe under the table, she thought, or in the barn. Oretta reminded her of the boys Boyle used to play with in the street, who drew a ring around themselves with a stick of charcoal and dared anybody to cross the line.
"Oh, come on." With an arm around her shoulders, Arden squeezed Oretta's plump form. "Jus' for a night or two. Then she'll prob'ly move into that maid's room off the hall, so she'll be near if Pa needs somethin' in the night. Please...?" Arden kept looking at her appealingly until a smile tugged at the woman's mouth again.
"Oh you," she said, giving him an ungentle poke in the side. "Such a cha'm boy, go off to Cha'leston, learn all them pretty ways. Soon nobody be able to stan' you 'round here."
Arden planted a kiss on her firm cheek and came back to take Devon around the table and through another narrow doorway into a small room lined with shelves of jars and smelling of cloves and vinegar and molasses. There was a bumpy straw mattress off to the side, a rough blanket flung across it.
This will just be for tonight probably," Arden said, his speech returning to its city style. "Soon as we get things straightened away, you can move into the house."
"This'll be fine," Devon said. "If it's all right with her."
"Oh, don't mind Oretta. She barks a lot harder than she bites."
Somehow, Devon doubted that.
She ate supper that evening in the kitchen, with Oretta and Funciful and her brother Fallow, though she had to sit at the other end of the big table from the three of them. Funciful set their own places at one end, then walked all the way to the other with Devon's plate and spoon. Devon had offered to help with the preparations, and then with taking the dishes into the house for the Winter family's dinner, but Oretta had said no each time. "We takes care of that," she said.
It was dark out by the time they sat down for their own meal. Despite some playful roughhousing between Fallow and Funciful, and Oretta's nonstop orders during the preparations and a few cuffs during the roughhousing, they were all very quiet while they ate, not even a glance her way.
In fact, Fallow had been silent ever since he'd come in. He'd arrived with an armload of firewood just as Oretta was beginning to fuss about his absence. And though she kept after him to wash up, he just kept stacking the wood in a careful pyramid beside the fireplace. It wasn't until Funciful pounced on him from behind, sending the stack toppling, that he allowed himself to be dragged to the table.
Devon couldn't tell how old Fallow was. He was as tall as Funciful and didn't look much younger, but there was something childlike about him. He was also a good deal lighter in skin color than either Funciful or Oretta. In fact, his eyes were a bit strange. They were a kind of hazy amber green, the sort of color Sissy's water bowl took on when she'd dipped one after another of her brushes in it, until they all just blended. He'd smiled at her briefly though, when he first sat down; Devon was grateful for that.
As it was, Devon was beginning to feel every bit as lonely here as she had been at Newgate's. There was the Winter family, and there were the black people on the farm. And apparently, she didn't belong with either.
"You gonna eat them grits, girl?"
Oretta's voice startled her after the silence. "Ma'am?"
Both Funciful and Fallow looked at her then and burst out laughing. Devon felt even more humiliated.
"Hush you' mouves," Oretta snapped at them. "You could learn some manners you'selves." She looked at Devon again. "You' grits, Missy. You want some graby for 'em? You hardly touched anya you' food."
"I'm sorry," Devon said, and put a big bite of the grainy white stuff into her mouth. Even with the bit of melted butter to ease the way, Devon's tongue wanted to push the bite right back out. She had eaten the little bit of ham on her plate, and nibbled on the dry biscuit, too shy to ask for any of the thick dark liquid the others were pouring on theirs. But the first bite of grits had been enough.
Devon swallowed with difficulty, tears coming to her eyes. She grabbed the glass of milk and took a gulp to wash it down. But even the milk was heavy, a thick yellowish layer rising to the top each time it settled back in the glass.
"Funciful, pass the girl the 'lasses. You prob'ly used to 'lasses on you' grits, if you comes from the city."
"We didn't have grits in London," Devon said. "Or at least I never had them."
Oretta lowered the bite she had been about to put in her mouth and eyed Devon uncertainly for a moment. "Wall, how long you been gone from 'London'? The word seemed unfamiliar to her mouth.
"About two months now," Devon said. "Two and a half."
"You been in Cha'lston jes' two months?"
"No, I was there only two days. Three if you count the day we left."
"You wasn't Mista Archer's servin' girl?"
"Just the one night."
A laugh burst from Funciful. She didn't look at Devon as she said, "They musta been in a real hurry to get ridda her."
Oretta snapped a spoon against her hand. "Mind you' manners, girl!"
Funciful's smile shrank, but it didn't disappear.
"You don' know nothin' 'bout the South then," Oretta said.
"No, ma'am," Devon answered, looking down to stop the tears from showing. "Only what Arden's told me."
"You right friendly wid that boy then. That why he bring you here?"
That much Devon did understand, and she lifted her head and looked straight into the woman's eyes. "No, we are not 'friendly'. Arden was kind to me. Is kind. That's all." And to her mortification, the tears swelled again.
Fortunately, there came the sound of the house door opening behind her and then quick steps on the passageway, and Arden dropped into the room. "Oh, you're not finished," he said.
Devon turned in her chair. "Yes, I am. I'm finished." Seldom had she been so glad to see anyone.
"I was going to take you to meet Father."
"I'm finished," Devon repeated. She looked back at Oretta. "If that's all right."
"Shoo, it not be for me tell you what to do."
Devon stood quickly. "Thank you for the dinner," she said, and set her chair back to the table.
Arden was looking from one to another of the people at the table with a quizzical expression on his usually open face.
"You go 'long then," Oretta said, her voice back to full force. "Don' keep Massa Cyrus waitin'. He don' like to wait, that man."
Devon found the inside of the main house an even odder mixture of plain and fancy than the outside. They went down a narrow hallway. The doors to some of the rooms were open and Devon walked as slowly as possible so she could get a peek inside.
The first room on the right was high and narrow and was inexpertly plastered and painted white. The hutch in the corner and the chairs were of light wood, crudely cut. But the wood of the long table that ran down the center of the room was a deep brown, richly patterned and highly polished, with a graceful pedestal base. The light that shone on the dirty dishes at the empty places came from a crystal chandelier, a plainer version of those she'd seen in the fine homes she'd visited with Newgate outside London. A small chair with a dark rose needlepoint seat sat off in a corner, too delicate apparently for anyone to sit on.
The next room, on the other side of the hall, was altogether different. The huge brick fireplace and the log walls were as rough as their outside face, sealed with red clay. There was a deer head above it, its eyes staring blankly. A chill ran through her, remembering that other hunted deer. There was a horsehair sofa before the fireplace, its back to the door; and on its footstool, she recognized Sumter's clay-stained boots. Arden rushed her past the door before Sumter might be aware of them.
The next door they came to, on the other side of the hall, was closed, a narrow flight of stairs just beyond it. But Arden knocked on the door on the left, and a rough voice barked, "Come in if you must."
It drained whatever confidence Devon had left, and she was glad for Arden's hand on her back as he took her in. He placed one hand on each of her shoulders as he said, "Father, this is your new nurse, Devon Quail."
The man lay in a great crude monster of a bed, with a square post at each corner and a sort of lid above of the same light wood. Lying in the middle of it, propped against a stack of pillows, the man looked quite small, and it gave Devon a little of her voice back.
"Can you tell me why on earth my son would bring some serving girl up here from Cha'leston to 'tend to my needs'?" He turned and punched a pillow behind him. "When my only need is to get out of this infernal bed and back to work 'fore this place goes completely to ruin?"
"No, sir," Devon answered. Then she said, "But if it's your heart, sir, you'd probably best not be upsetting yourself too much. Sir."
The man's eyes visibly widened, and Devon could hear her mother's soft voice saying, Don't be too quick to speak, child. Measure your words, as you must everything in life. Behind her, Arden sounded like he was being strangled.
"I see," the man said finally. "I take it y've got some sort of practitioner's license to back up y'r medical advice?" His speech sounded almost like Doctor MacBride's, the rich vein of Scotts like an edge on the slushy sort of speech they spoke here. She felt another pang of loneliness for the old doctor.
Arden spoke up quickly. "She does know nursing though, Father. She used to work with a doctor, in London."
"I was thirteen," Devon said.
"I thought she could just—you know, make you more comfortable," Arden said. "Bring you things. Maybe read to you."
The man scowled. "I can read to myself. It's my heart, not my mind, attacking me."
"It's nice to be read to though," Devon said, "sometimes. My father used to read to all of us, almost every evening, after supper." She could not have said why she was telling him this.
"But they died, my son tells me." His voice had softened a little.
"Yes, from the influenza."
"So you went to work for the doctor."
"Yes. He let me help him. He tended the poorer people, who couldn't afford a doctor."
"Why didn't you stay with the doctor?"
"He died, some months later."
"Sounds like you're a dangerous person to have around."
The old man didn't shift his attention. He said to Devon, "My son used to call me Pa, like any good backwoods boy. Then his mother shipped him off to some fancy school. Camden, then Charleston… Now he calls me 'Fah-tha'. Where I grew up, the Father was the priest."
"No one would ever mistake you for a priest, Fa-- Pa," Arden countered.
The old man almost smiled. It made his face wrinkle up. "Don't you have other business to tend to, boy? Go see your mother. She's always complaining she's got nobody to talk to. Go talk to your mother."
"I won't eat her alive. Go, boy—git!"
Arden gave her arm a little squeeze before he left the room. But Devon had stopped feeling uneasy. In fact, she moved a bit closer to the bed.
"So," the man said. "Shall I give you a test, see if you know your doctoring?"
"If you like."
"Did you have tests in school?"
"I didn't go to school."
"I thought you said you could read."
"I didn't say that, I said my father read to us. But I can," she added.
"He teach you?"
"We had his books. And some my brother Boyle traded for when he could."
"You taught yourself then. Good. Did it myself too. School's a damnfool waste of time; the earth will tell you everything you need to know. Now that boy's gone to some 'academy', he won't be good for anything 'round here. Goin' be a 'merchant.' One more crook in the world. His grandaddy'd turn over in his grave, hated them Charleston bandits."
"I don't think you need to worry about Arden, sir. He seems an exceptionally honest person to me."
"You and him --?"
"No," she said firmly. "He's just been a good friend to me."
"Well, he is a good boy, if his mother would just let him be."
"Am I to stay then?"
"Well, you're here, aren't you?"
"So what would you propose to do for a heart that won't leave a man alone?"
"I don't know, sir. Give it a rest, I suppose."
"That's no diff'rent than the horse doctor in Yorkville had to say. We didn't have to send to The Old Country for that, did we?"
"Do you think you could put up with me then? It's not easy, they tell me. My 'good wife' gave it up long ago."
"If I can be of help to you, sir."
"Well, you can't be much harm, I guess. What's one more mouth to feed, got so many."
"I'm already paid for. By Mister Archer, I think."
"Just till my son takes the money back to 'im. All comes out of my pocket, one way or another. Twenty pounds, was it?"
"I think so."
"And did they tell you how many years?"
"That's ten a year. S'pose you're worth it?"
Devon didn't answer. There was something else she needed to know. "Sir?"
Mr. Winter shifted his weight in the bed, punched the same pillow behind him and leaned back, then pulled it out and threw it to the floor. Devon went over and picked it up, set it beside him on the bed. "Sir?" she said again.
"What is it?" The gruffness was back in his voice.
"Don't go all mealy-mouthed on me, girl. Got plenty of that 'round here already."
"I was just wondering. Am I a slave now?"
The man's expression didn't change for a moment, then all the wrinkles in his face deepened again, nearly shutting his eyes. "White slavery's prob'ly the only kind this state hasn't got 'round to yet. 'Less you got some black blood. You got any black blood in y'r family? Only takes an eighth, you know. You got some African great-gran'mammy on y'r family tree?"
"Not that I know of," Devon said. "My father is-- was English, my mother Irish. Before she married him. But I belong to you now, isn't that so? For two years at least."
"Then what's the difference?"
"In two years, y'r a free woman."
"So I'm a slave for two years."
"Girl—Devon, that's y'r name?"
"Well, Devon, it's like this." His face had returned to a frown.
"My pa started his homestead a ways east of here, called it Winter's Rest. Had nine slaves to work the land. But he didn't hold with the practices 'round these parts. All the slaves worked their own land too. Within six, seven years, all of them'd earned their freedom. Four of 'em left—two back to Africa, two headed north. The other five stayed, worked their land, raised their families. Free people."
He shifted his weight in the bed and scowled. "Then Pa got hisself killed with the Regulators, fightin' them Britts and their Charleston cronies. I took over, had to, not much older'n you. Few years later, some yahoos from the other farms 'round Winters Rest—the ones'd kept gettin' bigger, raisin' cotton, buyin' slaves—they tore the place apart. Killed most ever'body on it, my two sisters with 'em. I don' know how many nigras got away. Ten come here with me, the rest I don' know. But wherever they went, they prob'ly didn't get to no kind of 'freedom'. A black man without a pass in these parts, somebody to 'testify' for 'im—whoever finds 'im gets 'im."
"So if I ran away?"
"Are you planning to?"
"No. But if I did."
"Well, then it would be up to me, I guess."
"To hunt you down or not."
"And if you did?"
"Prob'ly add some years to your time. At least that's the practice."
"And if you didn't? Bring me back?"
The old man shrugged. "You're white. Mebbe nobody'd question you. If you had enough gumption to get where you were goin'."
"Is that why Oretta and Funciful don't want me here, because I'm different?"
"That what they tell you?"
"No. But that's what it feels like."
"Give 'em time. Oretta's a good enough woman." His mouth twitched. "Long as you don't cross her."
Devon smiled too. She was feeling better.
"Now get along, let the patient sleep. We'll see 'bout where to put you tomorrow. I'll talk to Missus Winter."
Devon walked to the door.
"One thing, girl," he said, "you'll want to remember while you're in these parts."
She turned, her hand on the smooth wooden doorknob.
"This country you come to." He wasn't looking at her anymore, but out the one narrow window in the room, into the darkness beyond. "Black and white's all tangled up together here, snarled as a spider web once the fly's been caught. Nobody maybe 'll ever straighten it out."
Devon waited before he said the next thing.
"No way to stay out of it. But don't get y'rself caught up in it no more'n you got to. Till you can't never get y'rself free again."
They were words that would come back to her many times in the years ahead.
Patricia Brooks was the Managing and Fiction Editor of the Northwest Review while in the 3-year MFA program at the University of Oregon, has published two novels, and stories and poems in a variety of print and on-line journals. Now, a book and a half into this project, she is seeking an agent/publisher for the series.