A Short Story
Iberville Parish, Louisiana
Shrouded in darkness on the river, a boat of angry men stood poised and ready to strike. A bit of hot orange ash wafted silently from the smoke stacks on board. The only evidence they were there. The motors had been silenced as men took their positions. On board they carried a cargo of death and destruction. They waited for the signal.
Seaborn shivered on the bank of the Mississippi River, terrified and alone. Where would he go? What would tomorrow look like? Nothing would ever be the same again. Bull frogs, swaddled in the inky black of a moonless Louisiana night, croaked all around and crowded his thoughts. His breaking heart pounded as he thought of these past two years. Was this the right thing to do?
Two Years Earlier
Seaborn puckered his lips and blew. Nothing. No sound. The hot Louisiana sun beat down on the tops of the sugar cane above his head. A pair of squirrels fussed and scampered around the trunk of a nearby oak tree. The scratchy voice of locusts rose and fell in summer morning stillness. Birds sang their summer morning song. He blew again. Still nothing.
As Seaborn stripped dead leaves from the cane stalks, he remembered the task Winnie gave him. “Straighten that scarecrow today, or no dinner tonight.” He retraced his steps back down his green tunnel toward the shack, and stopped at the edge of the canebrake, still hidden in the tall stalks. Intent upon mastering this new skill, he dropped his cane knife on the ground, formed his lips and blew again, with the same frustrating results: a silent rush of air. Winnie told him to start practicing. “You is gonna work at the big house,” she told him, “but first you gots to learn to whistle.” His plump, round African lips found the task too hard. He tried again.
It rained during the night. Dark alluvial soil wrapped Seaborn’s feet and squished cool between his toes. He stayed in the shadows a moment longer. He’d never worn shoes and hardly ever worn a shirt in his life. At the big house he’d wear shoes, a shirt and a jacket. Seaborn gonna be a fancy house nigger, he thought. House nigger’s life bees better than a field nigger’s. He smiled when he thought of the fancy red jacket. He blew again. No luck.
Seaborn tried to think. He didn’t like the uneasy feeling he had. Mr. Hillary, the plantation overseer had died unexpectedly this spring.
“Massa gone an’ hire a outside man. Normally he be hirin one’a his regular hands. Jus ain’t right,” Winnie had said, not sure what to make of it. “He don’t trusses none of ‘em. Massa say he be losin’ money fo a long time. He done gone an’ hire a new man.”
Jacob Blythe had been the overseer at Grace Plantation upriver in Vicksburg until Union forces burned it. Blythe enjoyed a reputation for efficiency among planters, something Mr. Hillary had let slip. “Jacob Blythe,” Winnie said. “Jus’ don’t sounds nice… And the way these niggers is goin’ crazy roun’ here. Seaborn, keep yo self busy. Stay out o’ trouba.” She’d looked sternly at him.
Her eyes softened. “Good boy.”
Seaborn’s reverie was disturbed by the sound of Obu running and shouting an order to his brother Ben on the road. What mess they’s into now? Seaborn wondered. He remained hidden in the cane as their voices trailed off down the road. These twin slave boys were trouble and he wanted no part of it. The sun grew hot.
Mr. Blythe was expected any day. No foreman supervised the work now. “Child, Missa Hillary the only foeman you ever knowd,” Winnie admonished everyday. “An’ he was too easy on his field niggers. Most done forgot the taste of a whip. You ain’t never felt one,” she shook her old head, “and I hopes you never do, but a foeman gotta beats field niggers a little to keep ‘em straight, that’s what’s wrong round here. Problem is some foemans is nasty an’ beats slaves bad, even kills ‘em.” She’d seen a few in her lifetime at Cypress Bend. “It’s good you’s comin’ to the big house soon.” Winnie hated the way many slaves slacked in their duties. The young ran wild. Uncertainty created turmoil and fear paralyzed many into idleness. The price to pay for that idleness would be high, but the price for taking initiative and doing a thing wrong could be higher. Some hid in the fields, others beneath their shanties. Some even heard hooves on the road in the night and screams. They neared hysteria, and Seaborn thought it silly. He didn’t hear no hooves or no screams.
Winnie hadn’t either, but she couldn’t shake her anxiety.
“Massa Asa a good massa,” Seaborn had comforted his mother. “He ain’t gonna let nobody hurt his slaves.”
Asa Beauchamp had treated Winnie, Seaborn and all his slaves well. He’d seen the suffering plantation cruelty caused growing up at Cypress Bend and had no stomach for it. His father’s overseers had dealt harshly with their slaves.
During Asa’s four years at Harvard, the debate raged white hot over the issue of slavery and the humanity of slaves. Northern abolitionists argued that the institution rested upon violence and inhumanity, and slave populations weighted the South’s representation too heavily in congress. Planters’ sons suggested violence only happened on a limited basis with malcontents and that slavery had a long rich history in Europe and in the Bible and that the weighting was offset by crowded cities of the north. Asa believed both sides had merit. “But the day is coming for enlightened management of plantations,” he said. Neither side saw that as a workable possibility. Northerners countered that slavery was not a natural condition for a sentient human being. Planters’ sons scoffed at this, and said it was natural for the strong to possess the weak, that Negroes were less than human. Asa believed Negroes were human, but naïve and childlike, and therefore must be protected.
Asa had vowed to be different from his daddy. But, in 1847, when his father died, the awesome responsibility of all those lives, the business of operating a plantation, deriving his family’s livelihood and status in river society, became his. At his father’s funeral, while the family sat in the small Presbyterian chapel, Asa wrestled with new ideas, and wondered what the future held. He made a crucial decision. Asa hired his New Orleans cousin, Hillary Beauchamp to be his overseer. The two men agreed that hereafter Cypress Bend would be a humane plantation. The beatings and hangings ceased. Cypress Bend could become the model for enlightened plantation management and may even elevate Asa to his rightful place upon the national stage.
It was around that time, Winnie, a handsome slave woman gave birth to her baby boy. As she was unmarried, rumors were whispered about the fairness of her newborn’s complexion. Asa himself had christened the boy Seaborn. Those who fancied it, saw a resemblance to the master, but Winnie never spoke of it.
Despite his best efforts and great kindness toward his slaves, in the thirteen years since Daddy’s death, the productivity of Cypress Bend had been in steady decline. Insolence on the rise. None took him seriously now. The plantation’s debt quadrupled. The financial situation was dire. Added to this, the events unfolding around the country forced Asa to make honest appraisals of the situation and confront ugly realities. Hillary’s death presented an opportunity.
Winnie patted Seaborn’s head. “You is a good boy, I hope you’s right.” Still, the master’s comments about money had unsettled her. She didn’t understand money. Slaves didn’t have any, and had little occasion to touch it, but somehow his talk of losing money was upsetting. She couldn’t quite make out why. She performed strange, quiet Voodoo incantations mixed with Christian prayers over the fire at night. “Come on, pray wit me boy. You gots to take this serious. I wants you to stay outta the way, an’ don’t makes no ruckus,” she said, though she knew she didn’t need to, for Seaborn was of an easy temperament. “Do yo’ work till we gits to know his ways.”
Where was Mr. Blythe?
Now Seaborn heard Obu and Ben running through the cane. They were close.
One thing’s fo sho, Seaborn thought as he lingered a moment longer in the cane. Missa Blythe be coming down that road on a horse. When he do, I’s gonna hear him. Seaborn’s gonna be workin’ an have a great big smile on his face. He practiced a big smile and he blew one more time. For the first time ever, he got a sound. Brief, but it was a sound. Oh, it was so exciting. He smiled again.
The cane would be okay for a minute, but if Seaborn didn’t fix that scarecrow like Winnie ordered, she would be sore disappointed. The birds would get the okra, tomatoes and the few other vegetables she grew behind the row of slave shanties. If he didn’t fix that scarecrow, they didn’t eat. He peeked cautiously and then stepped out of the canebrake into the bright summer sun. At that moment a frightening scream came from nearby. Seaborn froze. The hen Obu had been chasing had let out a loud, surprisingly human yowl as Obu fell upon it. It scared Seaborn. Ben, panted next to him, winded from the chase.
Obu was the ring leader of these twin trouble makers. Last month he’d stolen pralines from under Winnie’s nose. When questioned, Obu blamed Seaborn. “We be workin’ in the fields all day,” Obu said. “What about him? He were aroun’ the kitchen this monin’” Obu had pointed at Seaborn.
“Obu, if you was workin the fields, how’d you know that?” she asked quickly. Only her confidence and dogged detective work saved Seaborn. Ben finally admitted the truth to Winnie when she promised no punishment. Seaborn kept a healthy distance from the two to avoid trouble.
“Obu, you scare me. Whatchou doin’? That chicken belong to massa,” Seaborn said, stepping close. “Give it here.” Seaborn was older and bigger than Obu.
“You could have half.” Obu looked slyly at Seaborn, testing the older boy’s loyalty. “Ain’t nobody gonna know. Massa in the big house. You know he ain’t comin’ out. He be sick. You still tryin’ to whistle?” Obu whistled some pretty notes. “I could teach you,” Obu said and made his funny goo goo eyes, which always made everyone laugh, but right now made Seaborn angry.
“It belong to Massa. Give it here.” Seaborn reached for the bird and they struggled. Suddenly the most excruciating pain he’d ever felt ripped into his left buttocks. He had the bird now, and clutched it close. The twins vanished into the cane. Seaborn figured he’d been water moccasin-bit, and he whipped around to see the creature that had bit him.
“Shoot a nigger hard in his ass, where he cain’t set down,” Seaborn heard the big yellow-haired man drawl. He was turned in his saddle, and talked to the five riders behind him. “It’s a lesson he don’t soon fergit.” The riders laughed.
Seaborn was struck dumb, eyes open wide. Who were these men?
“You stealin’ that bird, son? Drop it.” The big man let another big pebble fly. “Don’t shoot no nigger where he cain’t work.” The expertly aimed rock dug into his right thigh leaving a goose egg welt.
Seaborn found his voice. It was the scream the old timers dreaded. It carried across the plantation and sent shivers down many spines.
“Keep screamin’, boy. You’ll make my work easier.”
Seaborn still clung to his Massa’s chicken.
“Drop that bird, son.” Blythe pulled back on the sling. The bird fluttered to the ground and fled for the fields, clucking. Jacob studied the boy for a moment. He’d known that something on his ride into the plantation, one incident would provide him with his first act of discipline, and the first was the most important. He hadn’t dreamt it would be this good. “How old are ye, boy?”
The whites of Seaborn’s eyes got wider.
Jacob drew back the sling as far as rubber allowed.
Seaborn struggled to think. He wasn’t sure. How old? How old you is? He thought hard, shut his eyes, and braced.
Blythe released the sling.
Seaborn’s bladder opened as the third shot tore into his other thigh. The riders snickered as urine streamed down his leg and pooled around his right foot.
“Lookey there, boss, he’s waterin’ them canes.” They guffawed.
Seaborn turned to jelly.
“One more time,” Blythe said in measured words. Jacob used his voice to great effect. “How old are ye, boy,” he growled. Plantation slaves feared a rough white man’s voice, used rightly, more than the roar of a lion.
Seaborn trembled. “Ain’t,” he stuttered, shaking uncontrollably, “…ain’t sho. Fifteen harvest, I think... ain’t sho.”
“Thirty lashes. Two for each year. Jim, get a rope around him.” Great, Blythe thought. He’s old enough to whup, and young enough to shock them slaves real good. His plan unfolded perfectly.
Seaborn shook as the smelly white man tied a rope around him, bound his arms and tied him by his feet to the lead horse.
“Massa,” he screamed. “Massa.”
“Massa ain’t gonna help you, boy,” Jacob said. “I’m your master now, but you keep callin’ him. Call good and loud. I want every nigger listening. Let’s go,” Jacob called to the riders. Seaborn was jerked off his feet as the party moved out.
The ground came up hard and knocked out his wind. Rocks and clam shells bit and scoured skin off all parts of his body as he twisted. The tattered old remnant of pants he wore shredded. Dirt stuck to his sweaty, urine covered body and threatened to choke him. “Massa, help me. Please, Massa,” he screamed when he found his breath. He cried. Jacob walked his horse at a slow pace so as not to kill the boy. He must be alive for what was to come.
The road into the plantation first came alongside the pigeonniere, then the main house and kitchen. By the time they got to the kitchen, Jacob knew every eye on the plantation watched. They watched from the field. They watched from the shanties. They watched from the big house.
“My baby!” Winnie screamed as she ran out of the kitchen.
“Shut up, niggress,” Blythe snapped. “Joby, grab the nigger whore. Jim, tie the boy to the fence, back facing out.” While they dismounted and followed orders, Jacob continued to talk. “I want ever nigger that’s got ears to hear what I say. There’s new law here starting today.”
“No!” Winnie screamed, stricken. She looked from Seaborn to the back porch of the big house. “You made a mistake,” she hollered, “he a good boy.”
Joby back handed her hard across the face. “We don’t make mistakes nigger whore.”
“Mama,” Seaborn blubbered. “Massa….”
“Just a minute,” Asa Beauchamp said running down his back steps to the scene.
It was just as Jacob had planned. During their interview, Asa had spelled out the plantation’s troubles. Blythe deduced, quickly, that Asa’s weakness was the plantation’s biggest problem. This spineless planter and all his slaves would learn who was boss. His lips had the faintest trace of a cruel smile. “Yes?” he said dismounting. He looked hard at Asa. Seaborn looked at Asa. Secret eyes all over the plantation looked at Asa.
“You… you can’t.” Asa spoke and looked at Winnie, blood trickling down her chin. He gestured to the boy tied to his fence. “You can’t…”
“Cain’t what?” Blythe drawled. He looked at Asa then turned his glance to the boy and stared intently. An icy expression took hold of Blythe’s face as understanding dawned. He turned to Asa with burning eyes. “We have a contract. You know what I do, and you hired me to do it. If I recollect rightly, you told me this plantation ain’t been run right in near thirteen years, and yore niggers was outta control,” he said in a voice loud enough to be heard clear to the field. Jacob stared at the man before him. Asa, mortified, wilted before them all. He turned.
“No, no, no Massa, no Massa don’t leave me,” Seaborn pled in desperation. “Please Massa, please.”
The harsh midday sun glared down on the spectacle. Seaborn watched as Asa mounted the back steps and disappeared into the big house, Joby shoved Winnie away and Jacob returned to his horse, pulled a whip from his saddle bag, and began again. “Hear me now, niggers. There’s new law here starting today. All white hands will be run off. These men you see here will help me. If I think you ain’t workin’ hard enough, you will be lashed. If you steal any property of this plantation, even so much as a pea, you will receive thirty lashes, like this boy here. Caught ‘im trying to steal a chicken.” Without another word he flayed Seaborn with thirty brutal strokes. Seaborn felt the first five and then he was back in his sunny cane field dreamily staring up at the blue sky. The other slaves stood transfixed.
Asa couldn’t worry about one boy. He was torn in so many directions by fast moving events, both here at home and abroad. A black storm had gathered in the east since April, and the plantation way of life was under threat. The divided Democratic Conventions of this past spring all but ensured the election of a Republican president, posing grave danger for slaveholders. Those damned fool ‘Fire Eaters’ want secession, he believed. Why couldn’t they leave well enough alone and make Breckinridge their man? It was whispered they intentionally split and weakened the Democratic Party to ensure a Republican presidency and force secession. Incessant talk of Louisiana’s secession gained impetus every day. That would be devastating to planters’ business. It was an untenable position viewed from any direction. It was so bad Asa had taken to his bed for the past two weeks. A Republican president would certainly be opposed to slavery and make onerous demands. The South would secede. Asa believed it could even escalate to war.
Distraught, Winnie nursed Seaborn with a poultice of milk-soaked bread for the next few days. For so long, life had ebbed and flowed with the annual harvests. There was cruelty, but she preferred that to the uncertainty and change they now feared. Slaves knew that whatever change came, they would get the worse end of it. She and the other slaves knew there were big things cooking in the white man’s world, but they had little understanding of them. Over the next couple days Seaborn’s wounds began to heal. Winnie silently watched his inner struggle.
“Did Massa save me? It happened so fast,” he said. He looked back at the ordeal, but it was unclear. “Winnie, I don’t ’memba nutt’n. What happen?” Winnie couldn’t help. In the world of slaves, it was better to keep your tongue. Never speak badly about the master. The walls had ears. “He was there,” Seaborn seemed to remember, but it was hazy. He sat up in his hay pile in the corner. “Massa didn’t hear me,” he finally pronounced.
At Cypress Bend the kitchen stood as a separate structure from the main house, reducing heat as well as fire hazard. The Whistler’s Walk connects the kitchen and big house. A slave boy carries food from the kitchen to the servers waiting in the dining room of the house. The boy whistles as he carries so the master knows he isn’t pilfering food. Slaves preferred jobs in the big house to the field, but the position of whistler carried status. The whistler at Cypress Bend dressed as the serving staff, in a fancy red coat and black breeches. Seaborn saw himself clearly in that red coat. A trusted boy was important for the position, but one that could whistle was critical. Plantation life was changing and many traditions had been abandoned, but this one reminded Asa of older, simpler times. Master had long promised the position to Seaborn when it became available. The boy who held it for the past couple years had just died of a fever, but Master had been withdrawn since Mr. Hillary’s death. Seaborn had gotten so close to his dream, but now he felt it slipping further and further away.
Early next morning, Winnie changed his poultice. “Boy, you is gonna be heal any day. Don’t do nutt’n or you’ll break yo’ scabs,” she instructed. “If you do, you’ll catch a fever.”
“Okay, Winnie,” he said. Seaborn knew exactly where the sun was when master came down the back steps to see about breakfast. Seaborn had a while more to rest. When the time was right, he got up from his corner hay pallet, dusted himself off, pulled on his tattered pants and started for the kitchen. He looked out carefully, crept around the shack, crossed the garden and walked gingerly through the cane, unseen. He could hear others all around working. Winnie gonna be mad at me, he thought, and the motion hurt his back, but I gots to see Massa.
It was as if Seaborn returned from the dead. Slaves gathered silently around him. They inspected his wounds. Hands reached toward Seaborn, but didn’t touch, fearful his curse may befall them. Some mumbled prayers in the old language while all watched furtively for Missa Blythe, ready to flee at a moment’s notice. Winnie dashed out of the kitchen. “Whatchou doin’ here boy,” she hissed. She was terrified to see him, and he was so close to healing. This wasn’t good. “Not like this. Missa Blythe aroun’ here somewhere. Git. Go back--” It was too late. The back door opened and Asa stepped out onto the back porch.
“Seaborn,” he said loudly, “how are you, Son?” He smiled as he came down the back steps. The slaves scattered. Winnie felt herself get faint. Master’s presence would draw Blythe. Seaborn’s scabs had begun to crack from the movement. Little rivulets of blood ran down his back now.
“Massa, I’s ready to—“
“Well, lookey here,” Blythe said, coming from back of the kitchen building, wiping his sweaty pink forehead with an old rag. “Ready to beg forgiveness fer stealin’ and git back to work?” he said.
“Massa, I’s ready to be whistler,” Seaborn said.
“Jacob,” Asa began, “I promised this boy the position. Can we see about it?”
Blythe’s face darkened. “We need all hands in the field.”
“Please, Jacob, the plantation needs a whistler.”
“Fine, let’s hear him whistle.”
“But…” Seaborn stammered.
“Whistle, boy, c’mon, we ain’t got all day,” Blythe said.
Seaborn drew a painful breath, puckered and blew. A frustrating breath of air rushed past his lips, but no sound. He tried again and again, opening more scabs across his back. He hadn’t been able to practice because he couldn’t breathe deep without excruciating pain.
“Back to the fields. I got a boy can whistle better’n any white man I ever heard. Obu will be the whistler,” Blythe said.
“But Massa,” Seaborn pleaded.
“Son, did you hear me?” Blythe’s face reddened.
“We’ll revisit it, soon, Seaborn. Now I must check in on Winnie and see what we have planned for breakfast. I’m starving,” Asa said, and walked off.
“Clean that blood.” Blythe pointed at the drops on the brick walkway around Seaborn’s feet, “and git.” Blythe turned away.
Before first light next morning came a rude knock at the frail door. Winnie opened to see one of Jacob’s men. “Been long enough,” he said, “Nigger boy in the field at sunrise,” he said, pointing. “Harvest is comin’”.
“He ain’t heal all the way,” she pled.”
“He’s good enough to go to the big house. He’s good enough to work. That nigger boy needs to know his place, and I got a feelin’ Mr. Jacob’s fixin’ to learn him.”
The plantation had its best two years ever. Blythe turned in the highest yields recorded in the books at Cypress Bend. The plantation debt had been erased, and yet now it didn’t matter. Planters had bigger worries. All Asa’s worst fears about the election of 1860 and its outcome came to pass. A Republican named Abraham Lincoln had been elected, the south seceded and now the country was at war. They’re calling this the Civil War, Asa thought with rue. War fought between brothers and cousins is always tinged with rage and anything but civil. Louisianans feared the end of the world was near.
The Union army now held the capitol, Baton Rouge, and the Louisiana state government had fled for Opelousas and then Shreveport. Yankee spies prowled throughout the area sowing seeds of discontent and inciting the poor whites and slaves to insurrection.
Confederate General Breckinridge was encamped near Cypress Bend with his army, and a regiment of Confederate soldiers slept at the plantation. A party of skirmishers from the regiment had gone out days before and captured a Union naval officer. They tortured him and left his body afloat in his dinghy tied to a cypress tree at the bend in the river near the plantation. Over dinner one steamy August evening General Breckinridge informed Asa that the Confederate C.S.S. Arkansas was on its way down river from Vicksburg, and working together, they hoped to catch Union forces in a pincer action and retake Baton Rouge. The battle could happen any day. The confederates remained confident, but it was of little comfort. Asa believed fortune now favored the Yankees.
The awful Confederate soldiers slept in Asa’s fields, trampled his cane and abused his poor slaves. Many of these poor whites were no better than slaves. Worse even. These men were ignorant, dirty, harsh, cruel, and full of liquor. There was nothing Asa could do. The moment was at hand.
Seaborn worked the bitter fields sunrise to sunset. He could whistle now. In his anguish he’d taught himself. His round lips created not just whistles, but melodious sounds many believed impossible to come from a human being. He molded and shaded sounds of unbelievable beauty, imitated the calls not only of local birds, but also squirrels, foxes and other creatures of the Louisiana fauna. He could mimic owls of the night perfectly. He became an expert whistler, yet he never walked the Whistler’s Walk. Obu wore the red jacket. Seaborn whistled to summon slaves from across the plantation or move work animals. It was said his whistle could be heard across the muddy big river.
This scorching August morning Winnie had Seaborn summoned to the kitchen. She needed corn meal from the plantation merchant up on River Road. These were rare and welcome respites from the grueling work of the fields. “But don’t takes long,” Winnie whispered, “Missa Blythe be watchin’ like a vulture,” Winnie admonished as she kissed his ear. He hurried on his way.
Seaborn’s routine was always the same. Walk away at a normal pace until he got out of sight, and then he’d run as fast as he could to the store which left time on the return trip to stand on the levee and see how far out into the river he could throw a rock. He could throw a handful and get back with no trouble. On his last trip he’d thrown his furthest, almost a quarter of the way out into the river, and he was anxious to best that.
To his surprise the store was closed. There was a crude piece of wood nailed to the door with white letters painted on it. He looked at the letters for a few seconds. It made no sense. He turned for the levee--
“It says they’ve closed up shop for good due to the war.”
The voice and its alien accent startled him. It came from the shaded area on the side of the building. Seaborn stared at the stranger, and then looked to the levee. He wanted to go throw his rocks, but a slave never turned his back on a white man.
“You’re the one they say can whistle, aren’t you?”
How he know that, Seaborn wondered. He’d never seen this man before. Seaborn nodded, not sure what to do. And why he talkin’ to me? I’s jus a slave.
“Can whistle real good, huh?”
Again he nodded.
“Ever heard of President Lincoln?”
“Yassu.” His time for rock throwing evaporated as they talked. His eyes darted once more toward the river, and then the road. It was time to go.
“He’s going to free you slaves any day now.”
Slaves had heard this before and talked of it often at night, but none really believed it would happen.
“You could help. The Rebs are going to lose any day now.”
Seaborn couldn’t imagine that he could do anything in the world to help free slaves.
“Can you keep a secret?”
Time was up. Seaborn began to panic, if he wasn’t on his way now, he’d be in big trouble, but nodded yes.
“Step over here for a minute.”
Seaborn eyed the road home. He should run for it, he thought. What was this about? Warily he stepped into the shade of the building. “It’s okay. I’m here to help you,” the man said. “My name is William McCullough. Call me Bill. Yours is Seaborn, right?”
“Do you hate the Rebs?”
Seaborn thought of the loud, drunken men who mistreated the slaves. He nodded vigorously. “Yassu.”
“We need the help of a good man like you,” Bill said.
The word hit its mark. Nobody had ever called Seaborn a man. It stopped Seaborn for a second as he turned it over in his head. Bill went on.
“I need you to swear before God Almighty that the secrets I tell you will be between us. Imminent defeat of the Rebs is at hand. Do you swear?”
“Yassu,” Seaborn said. He shifted and readied to run for it. If he ran straight out, the white man could never catch him.
“We’re gonna kill ‘em all,” Bill said. “Every Reb soldier.” Seaborn paused. Bill told him some remarkable details of the battles that had taken place and that would take place on this night. While he drew a quick map in the dirt. He told him highly sensitive military information and exactly what part he, Seaborn could play. “Here’s the river,” he pointed at the crude map. Seaborn nodded. “Here’s the plantation building, the kitchen. Where are the slave quarters?”
Seaborn etched with his finger in the dirt where they lay.
“We won’t hurt the slaves. Will you do it?”
Seaborn fidgeted. “I gots to go,” he blurted. He wouldn’t betray his master, but if he didn’t go…
“I understand, but we need an answer. Tonight’s the only night. There’s no moon. Will you do it?”
At this point Seaborn would say anything to get away. “Yes.”
“Give me your oath. Do you swear?”
Seaborn never lied, but this time he had to. “Yassu, I swear,”
“You know what to do, right?”
“Yassu,” he replied, and then ran. No, no, no, I ain’t gonna do it he said to himself as he ran. He thought about the past two years. Maybe massa ain’t perfect, but he be sufferin’, too. Never. He thought as he ran as fast as he could.
But it wasn’t fast enough. Mr. Blythe had saddled up and watered his horse at the trough next to the kitchen.
“Where you been, boy?” he thundered.
“Iss closed. The stow be closed fo good,” Seaborn announced breathlessly hoping the news would be dramatic enough to deflect attention. The deprivations of war grew deeper every day. Seaborn noticed two pale shirtless soldiers slouching in the shade of the kitchen balcony.
“What took you so long? And what do you mean for good? How do you know that?”
“There was a sign.”
“A sign?” Blythe eyed him. “How’d you know what it said? Did anybody talk to you?”
“Men’s was there. They tell me what it say.”
“Were those men ours or Yankees?”
“They was ours, sir,” Seaborn looked away.
“Look at me when I talk to you, boy.” Blythe looked intently and climbed down from his horse.
Seaborn felt like mister Blythe looked right into his soul. He stared with his fierce, scary blue eyes from inches away. Seaborn could feel Blythe’s breath upon his face. “What took you so long?” he asked again.
Seaborn shrugged and looked at the dirt.
Moments passed. “You talked to a Yankee, didn’t you?”
“Nossa,” Seaborn protested.
Suddenly Blythe’s giant red hands squeezed Seaborn’s neck and before he knew it, his head was plunged into the horse trough. Seaborn flailed and fought, but he was bent prostrate and Blythe’s grip too powerful. At the moment of asphyxiation, Blythe pulled him up, and shoved him to the ground. Seaborn sucked gulps of air and sobbed. The two soldiers laughed.
“Quit yer squallin’ stupid nigger. You are never to leave this here plantation agin, son. Never. You hear me?”
Seaborn struggled to breathe. He wanted to kill the big yellow haired monster. Maybe Bill would kill him.
“Did you hear me?” Blythe hollered.
Seaborn nodded, humiliated, and enraged.
“Git up and whistle. Call the slaves. I have an announcement.”
It took a moment more for Seaborn to catch his breath.
Seaborn blasted his loud whistle in three bursts which could be heard to all corners of the plantation. These whistles meant get to the kitchen area, assemble quickly, quietly and orderly to receive instructions.
Blythe waited while they filed in from every side.
“Everybody here?” They all looked around. “All the kitchen help?” He looked at Winnie.
“Yassu, all’s here.”
“Tomorrow,” Blythe began, “These loyal patriots,” he pointed to the soldiers who now stood, “will have the battle of their lives. There’s a navy ship on its way, and our army’s settin’ a trap.” He drew a breath. Slaves stared. “We’re gonna whup those Yankees and take back Baton Rouge. Finish your work today and turn in early. We don’t want no noise. Tomorrow you will help these soldiers. Now git back to work.” They faded away and blended back into the cane as quickly and quietly as they’d come. “Remember what I said, boy,” Blythe called behind Seaborn as he walked toward the field. “You won’t never leave this plantation agin,” Blythe said as Seaborn walked away.
Master Asa never showed his face, never came to Seaborn’s rescue. Seaborn now had a terrible secret which could change everything. The Confederate ship C.S.S. Arkansas coming downriver had engine failure south of Vicksburg early this morning. Her captain burned and sunk her to prevent capture. The naval portion of the Confederate vise was out, and these men didn’t know it yet.
On this moonless night, at just the right time, events would thrust Seaborn to his rightful place on a national stage.
Those men out on that river were angry their officer had been captured and tortured. Tonight, Union Admiral Farragut floated the Hartford upriver from New Orleans under cover of absolute darkness. At Seaborn’s signal, the Hartford would launch its attack of Confederate positions and the plantation which hosted them.
When the noisy Confederates had finally bedded down and the plantation slept, Seaborn slipped out into the indigo night and crept to the river. His breaking heart raced as he took a seat and thought. He thought long and hard. “Massa,” he whispered softly into blackness. It was right he finally decided. Then a great calm came over him. Seaborn puckered his lips, and he whistled.