An excerpt from Caleb
A Novel by Charles Alverson
As Boyd Jardine wandered out of the tavern his ear was attracted by the clamor of voices down by the wharf. A little paddlewheeler towing a barge had just landed. Slaves were being herded, chains clanking, onto the platform where just about everything that came from up or down the river was sold.
Jardine wasn't in the market for another slave. He'd come to Lynches Landing only to deliver a wagonload of cotton and to get his second-best plough mended. But now his pocket was full of money and his belly half full of brandy, and it didn't hurt to look, did it?
'Step up, step up,' the slave dealer was calling to all the shoppers on the boardwalk and idlers on the wharf. 'Come see the finest bunch of niggers to come down the river this year. Every one a bargain. I've got to sell them all-today! Step up, step up.'
Looking up from the packed earth around the platform, Jardine thought they did look pretty good. Especially a high-yellow girl of about 13 who stood gazing negligently down at him, one hand on her hip and a sneaky smile playing on her Indian-thin lips. The nipple of one small breast peeked out at him through a tear in her sacking shift. He could smell her from where he stood, and he had to admit it was not a bad smell. Not bad at all.
Boyd was just extending a hand in the direction of the girl when a loud voice called out: 'Careful, Boyd! Nancy would about kill you, and you know it.'
He looked around to see Rafe Bentley, his closest neighbor, laughing and showing his big yellow teeth. Mrs. Bentley, sitting beside him in the buggy, was not smiling.
'Hello, Rafe,' Jardine said. 'Mrs. Bentley.' He raised his straw hat at the sour, angular woman and moved down the platform, not knowing where he was heading except away from that yellow girl.
His slightly stumbling progress took him past a frizzy-polled old man more gray-skinned than black and brought him to the spot where a young buck stood turned slightly away from the rest of the slaves. This one not only wore leg irons like the others, but his hands were cuffed in steel behind his back, a sure sign, Jardine reckoned, of a problematic nigger.
Motivated by no more than curiosity, Jardine looked more closely. The slave was tall and bulky, well over 200 pounds, and well muscled. His hands were big and knotted from hard labor, but the most interesting thing about him was his face. There was nothing special about his features-broad nose cut by an old scar, thick lips, strong jaw holding big, regular teeth. A fly crawled down his dusty cheek. But there was something in his eyes that Jardine-even in his pleasantly drunken state-thought he recognized. But he couldn't say exactly what it was.
Raising a hand, Jardine gestured for the buck to turn around.
Instead, the buck looked at him directly and said in a faint, dimly recognizable accent: 'You don't want to buy me. I'll kill the man who buys me.'
Jardine was as dumbfounded as if Jackie, his best mule, had suddenly started spouting Shakespeare. It had to be the brandy.
'What!' Jardine nearly screamed. 'What did you say?'
But the buck's face had closed up like a fist, and he looked not down at Jardine but up over his head.
Noting the disturbance, the slave dealer worked his way down the platform, pushing his wares out of his way as he went. When he got to the seat of the problem, there was no surprise in his expression. Without thinking, he aimed an open-handed punch at the big buck's head. He might as well have struck one of the pillars of the wharf for all the notice it got. But then, remembering why he was on that platform, the dealer adjusted his expression and addressed himself to Jardine.
'High spirits, sir,' he said. 'They do say it's the sign of a good nigger. That is if a man knows how to handle him.'
'I'll handle him, all right,' Jardine said. 'If I had my pistol on me, I'd shoot him dead.'
'That could be an expensive luxury, sir,' the dealer said. 'This here's a thousand dollar nigger.'
'A thousand dollars!' Jardine scoffed. 'He looks like dogmeat to me.'
The dealer grabbed the chain connecting the big buck's leg irons to his handcuffs, pulled him off balance and turned him around. 'Look at them muscles,' he crowed.
'Look at them whip cuts,' countered Jardine. The broad back was crosshatched with evidence of severe whipping, some old and obscure, some still oozing pus.
'Some people,' observed the dealer, 'think a whip is the answer to everything. For you, sir, I'll make him $800. He's promised to a man down in Baton Rouge who is going to cut my heart out, but I can see that you are the man to tame this blackamoor.'
Jardine thought for a long moment. '$550,' he said, digging in his pocket.
After getting his bill of sale, Jardine had the dealer's man strike off the leg irons.
'You sure?' asked the man. 'This is one bad nigger.'
'Just get them off,' said Jardine.
When they got to the wagon hitched outside Grogan's feed store, Jardine secured the big buck to the tailgate by the chain linking his steel cuffs. Then he asked him: 'What did you say to me back there?'
The buck didn't answer.
'You'll want to talk bye and bye,' Jardine told him and then untied the reins and jumped up on the driver's bench.
That black ran or walked every inch of the 12 miles to Three Rivers. When he fell, Jardine-who was not a sadist-stopped the wagon and gave him time to get up. But then he whipped up the donkeys and proceeded along exactly as if the big buck was not half running, half loping behind, eating a hell of a lot of red dust and coughing and spitting it up. Some of the people they passed on the beaten clay road looked with some interest of a man driving a mostly empty wagon with a slave stumbling behind. But in Kershaw County, people minded their own business. If they were white, Jardine raised his straw hat, showed his teeth and shouted out: 'Good day!' If they were black, he didn't see them.
While they were waiting for the mule ferry on the Ossingamee River, Jardine looked over his new purchase. There were some new skinless patches on his knees and chest and long streaks where the cuffs had raked his wrists, but nothing serious. After taking a long drink of cool water from the earthenware jar, Jardine, filled another gourd and held it up to the buck, asking: 'What did you say to me back there?'
When, once again, the buck didn't answer, Jardine poured the water on the ground and went back to waiting for the ferry. The only sound was the deep, gasping breath of the buck.
From the long verandah of Three Rivers, Nancy Jardine, 22 years old, striking
rather than pretty and just beginning to show her third month of pregnancy, saw
the cloud of dust coming from the turnpike and reached for the brass telescope
in its holder on a fluted wooden pillar. As she expected, it was Boyd. But she
hadn't expected him to have a large black man shambling behind his wagon. The
slave fell, and Boyd stopped the wagon. Nancy watched until the black slowly got
up and stood, head down, behind the wagon. When it began moving again, she
closed the telescope, saying under her breath: 'Boyd, you damned fool.'
When Nancy got down to the cotton barn, Jardine was already down off the wagon, and-with Big Mose standing close by-had broken the chain between the cuffs and nailed each half to the barn door with the buck spread-eagled between them. With the slim buggy whip in his right hand, he was again asking: 'What did you say to me back there?'
The slave, totally red with dust caked on sweat, his head turned to the side and eyes closed, leaned heavily against the barn door and gasped. He didn't say a word.
As he stepped back and raised the whip, Jardine sensed Nancy standing silently behind him. He knew she wouldn't go away, no matter what he said. He felt surrounded by silent adversaries. Bringing the light whip down harder than he'd intended to, Jardine heard in rapid sequence the crack of the whip on the buck's back, his stifled grunt and the thump of his big chest as it hit the barn door. He saw a spurt of blood as the rawhide broke open a recent welt. He also heard a disapproving intake of breath from Nancy.
Pride barely satisfied, Jardine threw the whip to Mose, saying: 'Get him down and have Dulcie see to those scrapes. Bed him down in the long shed. I'll have a look at him in a few days.' Turning around, he pretended surprise at seeing his young wife.
'Hello, darling,' he said. 'What are you doing down here in all this dirt?'
'I just wanted to welcome you home, dear,' she said with a double-edged smile. 'Come,' she added, taking his slim but masculine hand, 'I've got a pitcher of lemonade on the verandah and a real treat-ice. Hurry! Before it melts'
On the veranda in the relative cool of a long June evening, Jardine took the
glass of lemonade from his wife, sat down on the wicker chair and pulled her
into his lap.
'My God,' he said, 'that baby must weigh a ton already.'
'Thank you!' Nancy laughed.
They talked of this and that: Nancy's busy day, the price of cotton, seeing the Bentleys in town. Nancy did not mention her husband's new acquisition and wouldn't have. It was not her way. But she knew and Boyd knew that the subject would have to come up.
'I didn't mean to buy him, Nance,' Jardine said suddenly out of nowhere. 'I had to.'
'I know, dear,' she said, running a small hand through his thick blond curls,
'You don't know,' he protested. 'You don't know what he said to me.' Jardine waited for her to ask, but he knew better. 'He threatened to kill me.'
'I'd do more than threaten to kill you,' she told him frankly, 'if you'd run me twelve miles behind a wagon and then whipped me.'
'No, Nance,' he said in a pleading voice, almost like a small boy. 'He threatened to kill me before I bought him.'
'He thought I wanted to buy him.'
'But you didn't?'
Nancy considered this for a moment. 'But you bought him.'
'I had to,' he said.
Nancy slipped her arms around her husband's neck and enveloped him with her small body. 'Well, one thing for sure, darling,' she said. 'You seem to have got yourself an unusual slave.'
'Another thing,' Nance,' he said, his voice muffled in her long, chestnut hair, 'he talks funny.'
© 2000 Charles Alverson
SYNOPSIS: Caleb, an educated slave who came close to freedom, starts toward it again, despite the nature of his first encounter with Boyd Jardine. He becomes indispensable to Jardine, sees him through the death of his wife and saves his son's life. Despite this, the thirst for freedom stays strong in Caleb, and just before the start of the Civil War he buys his freedom from Jardine by using his fists and his head. Jardine sees him to New York and then returns to South Carolina to help form the County Dragoons. Caleb, after failing to find meaningful work, enlists in the Union Army and is co-opted into the cavalry. Former master and former slave meet again fatefully at Second Bull Run in the first summer of the war.
Author: Charles Alverson email@example.com
Agent: Lora Fountain Fountlit@aol.com