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Monsoon Lain

Copyright © 2015 by Monsoon Lain

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.


“I tell ya' Brein, those damned escapees stole themselves.”

The drunks nearby spoke loud and with erratic emphasis, their voices wavering up and down again not only mid-sentence but also mid-word.

“How on earth can any man, negro or otherwise, steal themselves? You ain't making a lick of sense. You steal a watch, a horse. You can't steal yourself even if you belong to someone like a slave do, the other replied. He verged on sympathy for the plight of freedom seekers, by his argument. As sympathetic as any white at the time in Natchez, Mississippi.

The establishment, a place by the name of The Sand Bar, was dark. The hour, late. And John Murrell's auditory mechanism was encumbered by such meandering and pointless debate.

“The ones came from Chesapeake, those used to working with tall tobacco. They consider themselves above the stoop of cotton toil, so they bolt. Take more kindly to sugar cane labor though, as by nature the plant has height.”

They were talking over each other now, with no logic or goal to their expirations. A year ago Muerell would have stood, walked over, and joined them for a tipple and perhaps brought out a deck for euchre at stakes. But now, having cleaned up his act in order to stalk the results of pure business absent of hapless vice, Muerell had it in mind instead to stand, walk over, and gouge out the eyes of them both. They interrupted his musings and detailed plans, in that hour of peace when all but the most professional of drunks had since retired.

“Gentlemen,” Muerell called over. “My bed has bugs and there isn't a chair in the sparse room I inhabit at this inn. I come here to recline and take pen to paper in reflection, which I find at odds with your incessant babbles.”

One of the men stood, kind of. The one who seemed sympathetic to owned slaves. He had to use the table to remain upright however. And a good view he had. He managed over six feet tall, boots on. An imposing beast at any level of intoxication.

“I'd shut your trap myself if I didn't have to preserve myself on account of financial purposes,” the man growled. “I have to fight soon again and breaking my knuckles on your face would delay the event.”

Muerell hesitated, his interest piqued. Where there were matches, of any sort be they horse races, card wagers, or pugilism, there was money to be made. Maybe these two were worth yielding for, at least in order to glean times, dates, names.

Muerell nodded.

“I apologize gentlemen, I am weary from the trip down river,” he said, standing and walking over. “Please, return to your seat and let me treat you both to a round .”

He gestured to the beast's chair and smiled. The smaller one still sitting nodded.

“These are lonely hours, the more the merrier,” that one said.

Muerell and the tall beast both sat.

“So tell me big man, pugilism is your game eh? What manner of it? Broughton's rules or rough and tumble?”

The short one laughed, hard. Meanwhile the beast commenced to snoring, slumped over as soon as his ass hit the wooden chair.

“What you think we are here in Natchez?” the small, more lucid one asked, reaching for another tipple. “Back country savages?”

He gulped down the whiskey and slammed the glass on the table. Then, right before Murrell's eyes, a Bowie appeared, gleaming slightly under the oil lamp above them.

Muerell flinched, and prepared himself to get opened up. But the little man just laughed some more.

“No, us civilized types usually settle unsanctioned yard disputes the clean way. With fresh-edged blades, sometimes revolvers if we can afford the powder.”

Muerell settled back down and nodded.

“Fair enough good sir. Up in Missouri, along the banks, they still make for one another's eyes,” he said, in reference to the drunken, rough and tumble fighting that crowds would gather to spectate.

“You know of Broughton's rules?” the little man asked, stowing his Bowie.

Muerell nodded.

“Why yes I do,” he said, reaching for the glass of whiskey the short man had poured for him.

“What's your name, stranger?” the man asked as Murrell drank.

Muerell set the glass down and reached out his hand.

“James Coutrell,” he said, giving a fake name, albeit one that sounded somewhat similar to his own (so he could remember it). “Out of Boston,” he added, giving a fake point of origin as well for good measure.

The short man shook his hand.

“Pleased to meet you James. I'm Simon Brein.”

They shook hands.

“So, you interested in any kind of investment here in Natchez, or you headed on to Orleans as soon as you are able?”

Murrell poured another glass.

“Well Simon, I might be interested in helping to promote the local fight game.”

John Muerell had a keen sense of economics, or so he believed the case to be. Having just returned South, along with the natural direction of Mississippi River currents down from North of the Mason-Dixon Line, he had settled into the city of Natchez for a short layover on his way to New Orleans. He was a changed man before arrival. While up in the industrious states of the Union, Murrell witnessed freed black men exchanging bets, sometimes even with whites, in tenements and ghettos. Muerell came to view the black race as an untapped resource wasted on pure toil, deprived of access to halls and public houses where open consumption of liquor and women for hire, in addition to access to card tables, was availed to them.

But now upon meeting this drunk duo late in the night, Murrell's interest was piqued in the potential spectacle of pugilism. New Orleans and Natchez were bustling cities with vibrant trade in slaves, cotton, and sugar cane. And he knew them well. For he had himself spent two years as a bandit on the Natchez Trace, an over 400 mile ancient path, first forged by savages, that linked Tennessee with the Mississippi River.

Murrell knew about Broughton's rules. His Scotch-Irish uncle had taught him, back in Williamson County. “Don't ever chew a man's nose off in a fight, leave that to the devil's ranks,” he said, alluding to barbaric manners in combat. “Kick him in the nuts instead.”

The thing was, as Murrell saw it, pugilism had some major growth potential. Such events were easy to organize, compared to a race or a sport of teams. All one needed was a makeshift ring or even just a circle of dirt. But the capacity for spectacle was off the charts. Each battle could be heralded as a showdown of epic proportions, like the gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome. Indeed Murrell figured that eventually boxing would make many involved into very rich men.

But for the time being, Murrell wasn't anywhere close to the upper crust. Sure, he had a healthy bankroll stowed on his person, gleaned from some success at card tables up in the north where workers gambled freely on payday. However he longed to up the ante and increase the stakes. And after meeting the big fighter that slumbered in his chair and his little sidekick Simon in The Sand Bar, he concluded that he just happened upon the right plot for such a course.


Chapter One

Karen never committed her mind in full the institution of slavery. But it was not as if she had many alternative choices at her own disposal. Because Karen was a woman, as made evident by her name. And women themselves were enslaved within the suffocating system of plantations, as was everyone else in their own way, even the land owners, men who inherited their estates and could never remove themselves from duty to their ancestral legacies.

Even Karen's Uncle John, the inherited owner of the 3000 acre cotton (modest by contemporary standards), corn and wheat producing land, could nary extract himself from the locale. He was afforded short trips to town on business, and occasionally made it as far as New Orleans. And indeed he once toured Europe before his parents died and left him to manage. But at his current station the continued upkeep of plantation fortitude very much depended on his sustained vicinity.

So Karen kept it all in perspective. Though as she fanned herself at midday, sheltered from hot sunshine on the front porch of the house while the slaves labored in the fields, it was difficult to reason that suffering and bondage were incremental in the world. Yet she tried to keep in mind that though blacks had the least power in the plantation hierarchy, that didn't negate in full the oppressive factors that kept her own life boxed in and finite.

“What passes through that mind of yours young Karen, while you wile away these summer afternoons anchored to that creaky chair on this creaky porch?” asked rotund aunt Laura as she walked up, her hard soled shoes clacking across the floor boards.

Karen smiled at the sweet woman.

“I'm simply trying to envision a bigger picture auntie. Trying to cast my gaze through the foliage to some geographical feature further off than the next rolling hill. Though not with much effect, mind you.”

Laura nodded and helped herself to an empty chair. Sweat had already beaded up on her brow from the steamy hike out of the house and to where Karen sat.

“Typical of your nature. Your mother had the same inkling. And that's what got her killed on that sinking ship as she rounded Cape Horn, visions of the West on her desirous mind.”

Aunt Laura tended to chide a bit, but overall she was a warm soul, and Karen's best friend on the plantation. Sometimes she even divulged information about the bedroom manner of John, brother to Karen's deceased mother and owner of the land. This amused Karen to no end, and she asked about the prior night every day over brunch while John was out in the fields minding the day's labor or in town on business. Laura did not always have stories, as John had lost much of his initial interest in her naked body, his libidinous gaze now trained on one of the pretty mulatto women among his two dozen slaves.

“I pay it no heed anymore, if the man only wishes to get my legs spread beneath him but once a week or so. For I can pleasure myself better with my own fingers, along with with thoughts of the fine black studs we have on these grounds, along with their overpowering frames all well muscled from cotton toil,” Laura said once, awhile back, leaving Karen in blushed titters. Karen even wondered if Aunt Laura had gone so far as to enlist the services of one of these studs, as the woman, like Karen, had a large stocky body well fit for procreation, the type that virile blacks were rumored to prefer.

From then on, Karen looked upon the male slaves in a different light. Up until that point, she had never even considered that one could be attractive, and puzzled at her uncle's own obsession with dark women. But when Aunt Laura said that, it shifted Karen's perspective in a gradual manner until one night she had a fitful, copulatory dream where one of the big black men took her, his breath baring down on her neck and his huge hands squeezing her round buttox.

“I haven't seen my uncle all day,” Karen said, jarring herself back to present, the statement not entirely disappointed in tone. “He usually joins us for breakfast,” she added.

Aunt Laura nodded and swayed back and forth in her rocking chair to get a bit of a draft across her sweat filmed face and up her thick gown.

“There's been some dissent in the ranks. He woke at dawn this morning and walked out to the to meet the slave master, whip in hand and ready to exact punishment. I wager that by now he has blood from the backs of black men on his hands.”

They both sat in silence after that statement, Karen pondering what the source of the tense drama was this time. It happened periodically. The slaves would get uppity, start slacking on their work on purpose and talking back to the plantation master and even John himself when they had the opportunity. This was primarily a problem with the field slaves, the house slaves never dared. They had it too good. They lived too well to risk endangering their stead.

In moments of chaos, John and Blaine, the overseer of slaves on John's plantation, would swoop on in, pistols at their hips and whips in hand. Then they would commence to lash the brutes back into working shape, or at least threaten to do so in order to motivate obedience.

But this was the first time Karen had ever noticed John missing at breakfast.

Chapter Two

That night John returned to the mansion after Karen and Laura had already taken supper, but while they still lingered at the table on the porch, enjoying the cooling evening air.

He approached from the darkness, without a torch in hand, a look of bitter hatred on his blood splattered face.

As he walked up the steps, he went for the door, and payed no heed to the women.

“John! What the devil happened to you husband?” Laura asked, rising to her feet to go to him, perhaps adding embellish to her concern.

John stopped there by the front door and shook his sunken head.

“I almost had to kill one of the black devils today Laura, I lashed one near to the brink of death.”

Laura embraced him.

“Havers!” she shouted, calling for the chief butler. “Havers where are you? Mister John needs your aid.”

Havers, a short middle aged negro dressed in stifling formal attire, walked out the front door and halted, shocked at mister John's appearance.

“They git' to you again mister John?” he asked. “Come on in here let me help get you out of those ruined clothes.”

Havers took John by the arm and led him in, with Laura watching.

“You get him cleaned up good and tend to that scratch on his face,” she said to Havers. “And tell Bessie to warm up a plate for him, I reckon he is as starving as anything.”

“Yes miss Laura,” Havers said as he and John disappeared through the tall door and into the mansion.

“Thank god for the slaves,” Laura said as she walked back to her rocker near Karen. “Without them I would have to tend to John myself.”

John walked out almost an hour later, in clean clothes, his hair and body washed and in presentable shape. At the table Karen and Laura still waited for him, under no intention to miss out on a retelling of what went down out at the fields that day.

As he sat, groaning in weary pain, Bessie the kitchen master walked out with some hot food and placed it in front of him.

“Thank you Bessie,” Laura said as the woman turned to leave.

John looked as if he lacked the wherewithal to eat. His eyes were empty, bloodshot and without an inkling of vigor.

“Come on John, let's get some food into you,” Laura said, lifting a fork and scooping up a piece of stewed meat and peas. “You'll need the strength to regale us,” she added, tossing a wink and a nod to Karen.

John looked stern.

Karen and Laura waited patiently as he ate a few mouth fulls, then slowed his pace of ingestion to begin his story.

Apparently the entire day had been rife with tension among the ranks, beginning in the early morning as the slaves awoke for breakfast with ample back-talk and sass, prompting slave master Blaine to come roust John to reinforce Blaine's tenuous command. But the events culminated as work cut off for the evening and night fell, with all parties involved weary and short fused after one of the hottest days of the year. At this time, just as Laura and Karen sat down for their own pleasant dinner and said their blessing a half-mile away at the house, one of the slaves, a young teenage boy, threw a rock at Master Blaine, cursing him and calling him a white devil.

Master Blaine, being one of short fused temper and a deep ingrained hatred for blacks, seeing as how one killed his brother a decade past, lost his cool and lashed the young provocateur.

While he whipped the poor screaming boy down to his knees and kept on whipping without letting up, another slave ran up full force and shoved Blaine to the ground. The assailant was Big Ben Tosh, the largest and strongest man in Master John's stock, a true specimen. Big Ben collided with Blaine with such momentum that Blaine dropped and hit his head, leaving him a might stunned beyond recognition of what exactly occurred. Big Ben, himself feverous with anger, beckoned Blaine back up for a man on man fistfight, which Blaine would most certainly have lost or perhaps not even have survived.

At that point Master John approached on his steed at a gallop, pistol drawn and trained on the group and shouting them down from their clamor. The slaves paid heed for the most part and stepped back from Blaine. But as he regained bearing on the situation, Blaine began to castigate John and implored him to shoot dead both of the offenders to his decency and honor.

John refused, but the tension remained even after he holstered his weapon. He decided, upon much chiding from Blaine, who had to deal with the rascals on a more day to day basis than John, it was necessary to whip Big Ben as punishment for his brash aggression.

He did so, having two free white workers tie up the slave to a tree. John then went to it himself, whip aswing, to maintain face and reinforce an air of his own authority, both over the slaves but also over Blaine who had gall to question it.

During the punishment however Blaine did not let up, accusing the plantation owner of going easy on Big Ben. Finally, John turned the tables, almost whipping Blaine himself.

“How dare you nag at me?” John asked the Slave Master, his right hand man on the plantation. “If you ever question my authority again I will let these Negroes tear you limb from limb, and observe the process with relish. I grow sickened of your incessant whinging.”

Blaine went silent as John walked past him to his horse and mounted up.

“Big Ben has had enough, and I need him fit for labor,” John said from the saddle. “If I hear about you lashing him any further today or tomorrow or this week I will replace your sorry ass on this here soil. There's a hundred fine managers down in Orleans who could take your place, if I decided to make the journey. Though damned if I feel like doing it in this heat.”

Blaine just stood there, dumbfounded, as John rode away towards the mansion.

It was a precarious situation, to have the first and second most powerful men on the plantation conflict as such and in front of the slaves at that. It belied a weakness in the structural hierarchy of the institution. But John maintained face. He conveyed to everyone present that at the end of the day, no one, not even his right hand man, would subvert his clout.

Chapter Three

Karen awoke to shifting hues of red, orange and yellow out her window. As her vision calibrated from slumber, she realized that down the hill the overseer's residence was on fire, the building where Blaine McOrmick, heavy handed slave master in service of Karen's uncle John, housed himself. It was the dead of night, without any light from a waned moon to mix with the flames.

Karen went to that second story window and stood by it, her nightgown straps half hanging off her shoulders, the crevice of her taught bosom peaking out above the lace line of it. She stared, good and hard, as the inferno grew to engulf a nearby granary and various shacks.

A chorus of shouts could be heard as whites and blacks alike from all over the plantation clamored to raise the alarm and mount an effort to extinguish the fires. Their figures ran back and forth across the lawn and down the hill towards the disaster. Karen watched, and thought to help, but wondered if she could. She wondered if she would have even been allowed to, being a woman and all. On the plantation, as far as the men were concerned, the fairer sex was unfit for such taxing duties. Karen perplexed at this, as if the bedroom acrobatics men were prone to subjecting women to didn't suffice for evidence of fitness.

Nevertheless Karen wanted a better view of the action, even if she couldn't get in on it and grime up her hands along with the menfolk. So she pulled the straps of her nightgown back onto her shoulders to make herself a smidgen more decent, turned, and walked out her bedroom door. From there she descended the stairs and went out onto the porch that wrapped around the entire perimeter of her uncle's grand mansion. Even the front yard, its view of the fire on lower grounds blocked by the huge house, was nevertheless illuminated by the growing light from behind it, bellows of flicker tossing off the darkness in ebbs.

Karen continued upon the porch, around back to the same side of the mansion which she had gazed out of from her bedroom window. There she stopped by the railing and looked on at the yard again. Screams emanated up from down that hill, shrill sounds of burning clothes and flesh, the sounds of death.

Karen shuddered, confused by the sight, not knowing what to do, if she should try to help or just keep herself safe.

Then she noticed something in her peripheral vision. A shadow in the darkness to her side. She looked over, and squinted to make it out. As her vision adjusted, she saw there on the porch with her, his back against the outer wall of the mansion, a large black slave.

He just looked back at her, frozen in silence, his eyes glinting from the distant fires.

Karen knew, just then, that he would have his way with her. And her adventurous mind was not entirely shut off from the thought of him. Indeed, he would have his way with her and she would let him, just not right yet.

Chapter Four

Karen!” shouted aunt Laura as she jogged up the lawn towards the porch, best as she was able in her impractical gown and narrow pointed shoes. Behind her was the giant infernous fireball far down at the foot of the hill. Karen was enough into the sphere of safety at the mansion, but could still feel ample heat to add to the already steamy Mississippi night.

Upon hearing her aunt's shouting Karen looked away from the big slave who had eyed her. Already he slinked towards the corner of the house through the shadows, escaping Laura's view.

Karen, are you okay?” Laura asked as she neared.

Karen looked back behind her briefly and could not see the man. Then she returned her eyes to Laura, which confirmed that the woman had not picked up on the slave's presence. Laura stood on the grass below, looking up at Karen, gasping for air after the sprint up the hill.

What happened auntie?” Karen asked in her best sweet, innocent, worried voice.

Laura took a half-dozen deep, labored breaths before she could speak.

Have you seen any of the slaves near the mansion?” was the first thing she said after regaining some steam.

Karen paused to toy with the idea of giving the big man up, but didn't hesitate long enough to raise Laura's suspicions.

Karen shook her head.

No auntie, I just came here to the porch from my bedroom. Please tell me what happened. Is anyone hurt?”

Laura swallowed more breath and nodded.

Some dead, burned alive. A couple of slaves and one of the white laborers too. It's total chaos down there. Your uncle sent me away when I attempted to lend my assistance.”

Karen nodded.

No surprise there.”

There's four or five Negros unaccounted for, including the prize winning specimen Big Ben Tosh. Also Master Blaine has gone missing, word is he is out hunting for the escaped property.”

Karen hesitated again, but just shrugged.

I haven't seen anyone. What are you going to do?”

Laura pointed up at her niece.

You just stay put. I'm going down to the East granary to check on it. If by some stroke of ill-begotten fate the fire spreads and we lose all the stores that's a small fortune up in flames.”

Karen nodded.

Yes auntie.”

Laura didn't linger another moment but turned and jogged off, in her waddling manner, into the darkness.

Karen froze there, not knowing if she had done right, if she had somehow put herself in gave danger by failing to alert Aunt Laura to the presence of the slave named Big Ben.

She looked over, to the corner of the house around which he disappeared, and saw him step back around it into her presence.

They stared at one another without speaking, for as long as a minute. More screams and shouts emanated from the lower yard, but neither Ben nor Karen heeded them.

Why don't you go to help those men?” Karen interrogated, her eyes trained on the big man, on his sweat glistened and muscular bare chest.

Big Ben shook his head.

Because Master Blaine will kill me on sight. He told Master John that I started that fire, that I did it because I wanted to kill Master Blaine.” Big Ben went silent for a moment as Karen took that all in. Then he continued: “Master Blaine is a damned liar miss. Master Blaine started that there fire his own self, so he could have reason to take revenge upon us colored folk.”

Karen looked away from him, down to the flames that rose as high as the hill and the porch they stood on.

Then she looked back.

Come on then Ben, lets find you a safe place to hide while we think about what to do next.”

Ben nodded.

Thank you Miss.”

Chapter Five

Down near the flames, close enough to the fires to singe eyebrows, John screamed at the slaves and white laborers who assisted him in digging up ground around the perimeter to prevent the inferno from spreading. Nearby, a pile of bodies burnt beyond recognition laid still, rescued too late. Their charred remains served as a testament to the fragility of life when rendered down by natural elements.

“Faster you devils! Dig with every muscle!”

He had since given up on extinguishing the fires and saving the single story overseer house, and focused instead on protecting buildings nearby, his own family mansion up the hill included.

“Dig! Dammit, dig harder!”

John couldn't tell who was lagging more, the slaves or the duo of hired white help, McHavey and Cooper. But he didn't have time to dwell on it. Of course they would have less incentive than he to risk their lives on behalf of property preservation. That was a given. John was the owner, he had the most dog in the firefight.

The group all swung pick axes and shoveled dirt, breathing in the noxious smoke as they went, coughing and wheezing. The trench around the compound was almost complete.

“John!” called out Master Blaine in his Irish lilt.

John looked over his shoulder to see Blaine running up, then turned back to his work and ignored him.

“We have to organize a posse John,” Blaine wheezed as he came to a halt. “Big Ben and a couple others went missing, they're nowhere on these grounds. They started this here fire!”

John gritted his teeth and dug into the earth. This ninny was of no help now. He only had revenge on his mind, and John couldn't spare the breath or time necessary to put him in his sorry place.

“Damn you Jonathan Frederick!” Blaine screamed.

John stood, unable to concentrate, unable to formulate solutions to the innumerable problems facing him as he considered how to organize the night. He stood and turned to meet Blaine's enraged eyes.

“You are on my employ, Blaine McCormick. I pay you, I feed you, I house you. But you still let the clouds of a whiskey pollute your already impoverished mind.”

Blaine just stood and listened, taking it in.

“I'll have you know,” John continued, “that many a plantations manage along just fine without an overseer on hand. In fact some down in Louisiana retain trusted slaves in the position. So I suggest you curb your incessant challenges to my irrefutable authority.”

Blaine gritted his teeth and nodded. After a pause, without saying a word, he spat at John's feet and turned to walk away.

But John lost it. He swung the shovel with all his might and hit the bastard square in the temple, which put him off his legs and too the ground, out colder than a winter fish. Then John went on back to the task at hand: preventing the total destruction of his plantation. Anyone that failed to aid him on this mission needed to stay the hell out of his way.

Chapter Six

Karen led Big Ben down into the cellar, a place to which with reasonable confidence Karen surmised that Master Blair would never dare search. The entire mansion, really, was off limits to him. Indeed the most central, important building on the compound was one where some blacks were allowed, the house Negroes, but also a place where some whites were not, namely Blaine and his team of low class laborers. Some might have even said that the house slaves had it better than the paid white workers: those gruff, whiskey addled men assigned to plantation tasks that slaves were usually not skilled enough for. In fact some house slaves might have even vouched for that assertion. But that is a debate for another day.

The cellar was dark, of course, so Karen lit an oil lamp that cast shadows on the walls as they descended the stairs.

“Miss Karen, where you leading me?” Ben asked her as their feet creaked down from step to step.

“To safety Ben. Master Blaine will search every structure on this plantation before he even suspects you would dare hide inside my uncle's mansion.”

Once they reached the cellar floor, Karen looked around for a place where Ben could rest. Against the walls were large casks of beer, and through a door nearby Karen knew there was ample bottles of wine from both Southern vineyards and even Europe as well. John liked to tipple, and each evening he imbibed in either beer or cider over supper, then afterwards turned to wine. The spirits were indispensable for his health, he claimed, and the chief operating purpose of that cellar was to prevent their beneficial properties from going stale.

Karen looked to Ben, who averted his eyes from hers. He had drops of sweat on his face. He was dirty, but still handsome. He had a benevolent aura to him and in that moment seemed also vulnerable, even though Karen knew that he could lash out given certain extenuating circumstances, such as he did when he saw Blair whip a young slave with sadistic relish a day previous. That juxtaposition, the harmless, gentle Ben set against the short fuse of a beast that would not passively abide by grave injustice, that contrast titillated Karen.

I've seen you Ben, these past two years since I came to live here. You're a good man,” Karen said, staring right at him, the oil lamp held down at her side.

Miss Karen,” Ben said, still averting his gaze, “why you telling me this right now?”

Because I want you to know that I will do everything I can to keep you safe. I will testify on your behalf. My uncle respects my word, to an extent. And he is aware of Master Blair's weak character.”

Ben finally met her eyes.

Miss Karen, your uncle whips us too. He won't side with a negro.”

Karen reached out and put her hand on his arm. It was thick with muscle, and his skin warmed her hand in the cool cellar air.

But not like Blair, right Ben? My uncle doesn't strike you in the same manner, with the same force, and for the same trivial reasons as Blair?”

Ben didn't answer, so Karen squeezed his arm harder and stepped towards him. He towered over her, and her face was now close to his broad chest and shoulders. She could feel his breath bare down on her from above, and his strong heart thumped in his rib cage.

Miss Karen... please.”

Karen let go of his arm, then turned away and walked over to the casks, her eyes welled with tears. She understood, how confusing is must be to an abused individual, to reason that one tyrannical oppressor was less egregious than another.

I don't want to get you into any more trouble than you are already in, Ben.”

She held the lamp out at the beer casks and saw that there was some space between two of them.

Come on, lets roll another cask over here. You can hide behind them. I will bring some milk down for you from the dairy-house. Then I will venture out into the night to ascertain what has become of that fire.”

Chapter Seven

The pit was dug, and what remained of the overseer's quarters smoldered into the ground as the dawn sky brightened. It had been a hell of a long night, and everyone was ragged and hoarse voiced.

John watched, at rest as the slaves and hired help all went to work. Some poured water on the coals, some removed burned bodies, some salvaged trinkets, some just watched and waited for instructions.

Blaine McCormick, drunk and concussed, was carried off thirty minutes prior by McHavey and Cooper, to where John did not know. They probably left him with a bottle whiskey, after pouring some both on his head wound and down his throat. The useless bastard hadn't even lifted a finger to try and save the house in which he took shelter, on John's good will and dime. John thought to replace them both, house and resident. Blaine McCormick had to go. He caused nothing but tension on the plantation, which made John to feel as if he were on a ship in an ocean of cotton, under threat of impending mutiny by his first officers.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Karen approach down the lawn from the direction of the mansion.

Where's your aunt, Karen?” John asked her, his eyes still on the wafts of smoke that seemed to wisp up from far beneath the charred earth. He hadn't seen his wife in over an hour, and was beginning to fret.

Not to worry uncle, she just returned to the house, she's helping Bessie prepare everyone a meal.”

John nodded as Karen came to a stop next to him and placed her hand on his back.

Good. It relieves me that she is unharmed,” he said.

After that the two went silent, as they just stood there and watched the lumbering activity around them. Two slaves carried a charred corpse by, its teeth somehow still appearing off-white, while its carbonized jaw gaped open into what looked like a scream, frozen into an expression of torture by inhuman temperatures.

Blaine told me the big one started it, my best slave Ben,” John said, somber.

Yes, so I hear,” Karen said.

John looked over at her.

So you hear?” he repeated, wondering whom she had received word from.

Karen shrugged.

Aunt Laura must have overheard McCormick's report.”

John looked back at the disaster site.

If rumor spreads to other slaveholders who neighbor us that I am overly soft on my stock, I risk losing their association when we ship cotton out of Orleans.”

Karen remained silent.

Big Ben is the finest specimen I have, and likely one of the strongest backs in all of Mississippi. Damned if that scoundrel Blaine hasn't brought me to a hell of an impasse. I ought to hang him instead of Ben, if only he didn't have loyal Irish hands under his supervision.”

John had some decisions to make, and few options from which to cherry-pick. He could find and hang Ben, for one. That would assuage Blaine's temperament and prevent him from claiming John to be more loyal to a black slave than white employees. Or he could cast out the problematic drunk and risk reputation, while preserving one of the greatest well-bred assets in his stable.

If you see Ben about anywhere, report to me immediately,” John said to Karen. “The longer he is missing, the greater the chance Blaine will find him and string him up, and I won't be able to do much about it.”

Chapter Eight

Blaine came to, gradually. His vision regained some focus, but not with such horrific clarity as experienced on one of the rare days when whiskey stocks had run dry.

Cooper, his loyal assistant and confidante, handed him a bottle of rye, which Blaine chugged from deeply. They sat alone in a small building, and nearby various tools hung from hooks and sat on top of counters. Morning sunlight peaked through cracks in the hewn timber walls.

Where are we?” Blaine asked, rubbing his eyes after a generous nurse from the bottle.

The carriage house, Blaine. John Frederick struck you with a might I ain't never seen him take to the slaves with.”

Blaine passed the bottle back to the man.

I remember as much,” Blaine said. “He's got himself a heart weak for blacks, I reckon because he prefers to bed their ape women more than his own plump and comely wife. Damned protestants and their depraved fancies. His father Richard however was not so soft. Back when John was but a boy, when we planted the first seeds in this ground, no slave dared glance in the old man's direction or even speak his name, even when he was long out of earshot.”

Cooper swigged and passed the bottle back again, and Blaine took it.

Well what do you reckon we ought to do about the matter?” Cooper asked.

Blaine shrugged.

I reckon we will have to find Ben and hang him for lighting my house afire. If he interferes, we'll notify every white worker in the county that if you work for John Frederick, you work for a man that has more loyalty to a slave than for his own pure race.”

Cooper nodded.

I have the rifle at ready,” he said, pointing over to Blaine's long gun set on a bench nearby.

Blaine was relieved Cooper kept it at hand despite the chaos of the fire. It was one of the few firearms on the plantation. Too many guns about was recipe for a slave uprising like the one in 1811 on the German coast near Orleans, the largest such occurrence. Luckily at the time the small army of 500 or so brutes were only armed with farm tools. But had they gained access to firearms, they would have ravaged the city and taken more than a mere few white lives.

Good,” Blaine said. “Best place to smoke out Big dark Ben is at the slave quarters. I wager one of them knows where he hides.”

Cooper stood and went for the gun.

What of the others?” Blaine asked, pushing himself up into a sitting position.

McHavey is at the site of the fire, still tending to cleanup,” Cooper said. “But when it comes down to it, should you confront John on his negro loving ways, I believe he will side with you and not that Brit blooded prig.”

Good,” Blaine said, reaching out his hand. “Now help me to my feet.”

Chapter Nine

Blaine would kill Ben, if he found him that night. And John, if he didn't have Blaine's head, must necessarily have Ben's, being backed into such a corner of impasse by the circumstances. So Karen, now fully aware of these factors, made her way back to the basement, dodging by shadow into and through the house.

Once there, she rousted Ben from his reclined and aching nook behind the kegs of ale.

Come on Ben, we have to try and get you off the plantation,” she said, helping him to his feet as he groaned in weariness.

They made their way out of the house not unnoticed. Aunt Laura spied them as they exited the side door as she carried a pot of hot water out of the cookhouse. They all stopped there in the twilight, and Karen half expected the woman to drop the container, scald her foot, and scream bloody murder. But after a moment, all Laura did was turn away and continue, without even acknowledging them, except for what Karen perceived to be a slight smirk upon the woman's red lips.

They got out to the road, and heard dogs in the distance, likely Blaine's scent hounds. But they were far off and barely audible. Karen felt that there was good chance they could outrun the olfactory reach of the canines.

But the reality of the situation was that travel through the deep antebellum South was a stifled process. A web of connected communication networks existed between neighboring properties, and any woman or non-white was looked upon with suspicion as either a whore or an escaped slave. The Underground railroad depended on it's own networks, which no one on the Frederick plantation had ties to.

They had but a few options, both of them involving the North. Karen, upon first instinct, wanted to head to New Orleans, where she had seen abundant free blacks mingling with men and women of a dozen different origins. The city was a smorgasbord of bustle, thronged with crowds and sights and sounds into which almost anyone could blend in.

But she knew also that New Orleans contained within its limits the single largest slave market in the states. And it represented a terminus. From there, where could they go? Negros came into port, but rarely left.

The Caribbean had many free islands, but they were small and not easily accessed. Cuba was still a slave ridden country, as was Puerto Rico. There remained the possibility of Mexico, but like other Spanish speaking countries, the language barrier represented an impediment. Karen, in her indelible thirst for knowledge of life beyond the scope or her own horizon, had read as much in what newspapers she could find on monthly trips to Natchez with her uncle. She kept in her mind somewhat of an idea of it all.

As they walked out onto the road, silent, Ben shuddered at the sound of the scent hounds in the distance.

Those dogs miss Karen, they only exist to ferret out slaves,” he said.

Karen looked over and shushed him.

Whisper Ben.”

Ben nodded looking about as the sun rose above.

Why you doing this?” he asked, at a whisper as suggested.

Why Ben, you may not understand it, but I have been waiting for a good reason to bolt the property myself for a long time.”

They crossed the road, going towards the thicket on the other side. Mosquitos bit them incessantly.

Ben stopped and eyed a pile of fresh horse manure.

Come on Miss Karen,” he said. “Let's bathe ourselves in that dung. To keep the critters off, and hopefully the hounds as well.”

He stepped to it, reached down, and lifted it up in his big palm. Then he smeared it on his clothes and skin.

Karen shuddered. This she had not expected when fantasizing about a harrowing escape from her castle life.

Chapter Ten

It isn't any use Blaine,” John said to him from the side.

Blaine was surveying the charred rubble of what was once his pleasant three room house, the station of his responsibility for slave oversight.

There's nothing for you here anymore.”

The hounds were stowed. To continue on in the heat of mid-day risked their health, as they were already exhausted from chasing false leads through the hours of the morning.

Blaine shook his head and turned to John.

You would let Ben make away with your own niece, likely under duress?” he hissed. “But then again, perhaps not. Given the proclivities of your family for dark flesh, I reckon she might follow innate urge as she makes way with him towards the river.”

This was not the first time Blaine had alluded to John's liaisons with negro mistresses. Heck, Blaine humped them too, as did any red blooded male in such conditions. The women had an air about them, an exotic draw like tropical spices.

But hidden in the subtext of the statement was also a hint towards John's wife's rumored reception of black studs. The comment cut deep into John. For a white woman to spread her legs beneath a negro beast was tantamount to corruption at the fabric of Caucasian morals. The girth of a black man's member soiled a white woman's body with its imposition.

Leave the plantation,” John said, “before I fetch a shovel again for a swing at your other temple.”

Blaine clenched his jaw tight.

You just give her up do you? Allow his hands to tear at your niece's flesh?”

John shook his head.

Believe you me, I will find my sister's daughter and return her to safety. Yet I will do so without asking for help from you or any your mutinous cronies.”

Blaine went silent. John sized him up and tried to read his demeanor. Would the man snap? At that moment John had no weapon with which to bash him, and Blaine was thunder with his fists, more than a match for a relatively sheltered, slighter man.

More carefully this time, John began to speak again.

Big Ben's escape was a blessing in disguise. Because by your station you are responsible for such a breakout, as overseer of the flock. And to add, he left with my niece, which ads to damnation of your performance. Now, I can find him myself, without your inept assistance. I can hire the best negrohunters in the South if need be. But you I never want on my property again. You lost my best slave, and you lost my niece.”

Blaine was backed into a corner here. No longer did he have the leverage of claiming John to side with a slave over him. They both knew it.

Very well, master John. So be it. I will race you to the finish line.”

John deduced the meaning. Blaine was going to exact his revenge upon Ben. And one could imagine what might happen to Karen in the process.

Blaine turned and walked off, likely to fetch his friends and only horse.

Watch yourself!” John shouted after him, suddenly encumbered with phobia with regards to his niece's well-being.

And you watch yours,” Blaine muttered in retort.

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