Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Chapter 37: RECKONING

It was far too quiet, unnaturally quiet. Fear descended like twilight over the mountain. There was no hum of activity anywhere on the estate, not in the stock pens, or the cook-house, or the slave cabins. Only the thick, manufactured quiet of held breaths and swallowed words, punctuated now and then by a stray shot, or the riot of passing hooves, or yelping dogs, or some other outcry of violence. Then the ominous quiet again. Like a nightmare.

Without Shadow’s firm footing, Jack had long since lost his way in the dense, darkening wood, maneuvering through the prickly scrub however he might. He could only keep battling his way downward, staying out of the open, and dodging for deeper cover at every sound. He had lost his bearings, his sense of time. He had lost his battle to save Alphonse’s companions.

"This is a military operation, now," he tried to convince them, after Alphonse had gone. "The men who find you here will be soldiers sniffing for blood, not planters and bookkeepers. They won’t negotiate. They won’t give you a hearing. They’ll be looking for targets, scapegoats, and you’re playing right into their hands!"

"I no listen to any more of your prattle!" Paris exploded, at last. "Belair was right, you come to warn us and you should not die for it. But I kill you me own self if you say anoter word." He waved a cutlass toward the door. "Go. Now!"

"Come with me! At least throw down your weapons, and take up your tools while there’s still time." A foolish thing to say, Jack knew. Their only weapons were their tools, cutlasses from the cane fields, axes, pikes. Henry’s musket was their only firearm. Their escape plan had needed no defense, only secrecy and stealth, but that was in shambles now. "They only want proof of a conspiracy to convict you. Don’t give it to them."

"Go, before you make cowards of us all!" cried Paris.

"They will make corpses of you all!" Jack had pleaded. "What will any of you achieve, hung up in a gibbet to die in the sun? What will that tell your people?"

"That we choose to die with honor," hissed Paris. Young Remus and Henry and the handful of others grunted their agreement. "This not your fight, buckra, no more than it was Belair's," Paris told him, his voice softened by fatalism. "Go."

And Jack had gone, slunk off into the scrub with only his bitter frustration for company. He tried to convince himself they might yet elect to save themselves, if there was no white man there to see it. But the first shot from above, some time ago now, told Jack they had been discovered at last, trying to fight or flee. The dogs he’d heard were surely flushing out the ones who had run off. He'd crept past a party of militiamen who had captured one conspirator, and heard the ringing cartwhips of their interrogation for what seemed like hours after. How long before one of these brutalized fellows coughed up Alphonse’s name? Jack could only pray to Christ that Alphonse had gotten off this cursed mountain in time.

Jack had already fallen once and muddied his clothing. If only he had some idea of where he was, and how to get off this mountain. As he felt his way along, he came to a sudden, sharp drop in the scrub, a declension too steep to climb down in the dark, possibly even a ravine. He made his way along this ridge until he came to a place where the brush gave way to a clearing of open, rocky ground. Peeping out, he saw he was on the far perimeter of the slave yard. Past a few plots of kitchen gardens, off to his left, he could make out the dark shapes of the cabins, with a few tentative lights within.

Far across the open yard, sloping up from the right, Jack saw a wall of maturing cane, its feathery tops stirring in the rising night breeze. He knew the lower border of this estate and its neighbors was the Round Road that circled this part of the mountain, the road that would take him back to Charlestown. Back to Tory. If he could make his way into the cane-pieces, he could follow their milder slope down to the road, and get out of here.

He glanced back up toward the cabins, focusing all his senses to try to pierce the eerie stillness. The militia must have a guard posted to watch the cabins, but where were they? The only lights were a few far-off dots inside the cabins, and the glow of a cookfire, hastily abandoned, at the edge of the kitchen gardens nearest him, banked but not yet out. Beneath charred, ashy wood and trash, something still glowed red within. The fire still fed.

Jack could see nothing, hear nothing. But the tension in the yard was alive for all the stillness, a thousand ghosts stirring in the air, waiting, hovering. Loas and jumbies, all the spirits of the dead, watching to see who would join them on this terrible night. A fierce night wind began to whistle now in the cane, an unearthly sound. But Jack would take his chances with the ghosts. He only hoped the militia near the cabins was too far away to notice him.

He started out slowly. Out in the open, he could better hear a distant murmur of harsh soldierly voices and sudden laughter from the direction of the cabins, and he moved more briskly for the cover of the cane. Halfway across the open field, his ear picked out an indistinct drumming of hoofbeats growing louder, shivering the ground under his feet. Jack spun around when something crashed out of the wood, behind him, an eruption of flailing limbs and stomping hooves and cursing and snorting that gradually resolved itself into a horse and rider.

"I said halt, ye damned brute!" bellowed the rider. He flailed some heavy thing across the horse’s nose, yanking so severely on the reins that the snorting, irritated animal hobbled about in two clumsy circles before the rider regained control. Derisive male laughter echoed down to them from the cabins, where the militia kept watch.

"Sodding half-wits—" fumed the rider, but his curses died away as he came about the second time and spied Jack in the darkness, inching toward the cane field.

"Halt there, you!" he cried, spurring his horse to cut off Jack’s progress. And Jack knew that he was trapped in the worst nightmare of his life. It was too dark to see the cold green eyes, but he knew the contemptuous voice of Stephen Raleigh. It made an awful kind of sense, finding him here. Funny, how the bastard kept popping up whenever there was trouble.

"You know you’re forbidden to leave the cabins," Raleigh continued. "What are you up to, hey? Answer me!"

Jack thought he might brazen it out if Raleigh did not recognize him in the dark. But this was not the night to play the part of a slave.

"Why, I’ve lost my way in the dark, officer." Jack tried his most civilized accent. "Be good enough to point me toward the road."

There was a beat of terrible silence. Then Raleigh’s hand clamped down on Jack’s filthy collar. "Oh, you’ve lost your way, all right. Mountebank. D’ye take me for a fool?"

"You’re a long way from Basseterre, Constable," Jack muttered. "Who’s terrorizing the market women while you’re away?"

"I’ve had a run of ill luck in Basseterre." Raleigh was seething, but still in command of his temper. His grip was still strong. Jack could smell the oily rag wrapped round the end of the club he now cradled against his side as he clutched the reins. A torch. His restless fellows in the militia, itching for sport, must have chased him off on patrol before he could light it. "But my fortunes will change once I bring you up on charges."

"What charges? Wandering in a wood is not a crime."

"Sedition is a crime. Collusion with the damned darkies. Threatening an officer of the law in his own rooms is a very serious crime. And so is aiding a rebellion."

"There’s no rebellion here. You fellows are chasing your tails."

"There’s a rebellion, by God, or I wouldn’t find you here. And I’ll have it out of your hide, every detail. We’ll get our proof."

"If I’m you’re only proof, you won’t have much to show for your pains. The entire militia mustered to rout out one paltry white man? This operation will be the laughingstock of the islands."

But this goad had a more violent effect than Jack expected.

"No one will be laughing! Least of all you, Mountebank." His fist knotted more tightly into Jack’s collar. "And how is your colored whore these days?" he needled viciously.

"She is very well indeed. Far away from here."

For an instant, Raleigh’s grip trembled. "You lie!" he hissed. "Getting rid of that insolent wench is the best day’s work I ever did. Sending you to the gallows will make my triumph complete. Your kind are a contagion, infecting the whole of the Indies with your liberality. Conspiring with the damned slaves until they think they’re as good as men—"

"They are men," Jack interrupted. "They have a right to live."

"Not on my watch! I’ll root 'em all out, as I’ve rooted out you and your whore, all the darkies and the damned free coloreds, all the sodding trash with their airs until the pits of Hell overflow—"

Jack could not help staring at this outpouring of bile. Even Raleigh must have realized he was raving and his voice faded.

"Go home, constable," Jack urged quietly. "There’ll be no trouble here tonight unless you start it."

Raleigh stared down at him in mute rage. Then there was a horrible lightening of his demeanor; Jack could feel it in the very air, as dark as it was. "That’s right, by God. Mustn’t let a good rebellion go bad for want of a little proof," Raleigh rasped. "I’ll give 'em proof they’ll never forget!"

He pushed Jack aside, grasped the end of his cold torch and brandished it in the air. A tiny voice of sanity in Jack’s brain told him to dive for the cover of the cane and get away when he had the chance, but he leaped for Raleigh’s arm instead, struggling to wrest the torch out of his grip. But he only succeeded in pulling loose a tail of oiled cloth before Raleigh kicked him in the chest, and rode over to the cookfire, to shove the end of his torch into the glowing embers until it flamed up in the dark. Jack scrambled up to run after him. But by the time Jack got there, Raleigh had come about and was spurring his mount toward the cane field, his flaming torch aloft.

Igniting a cane-piece was the signal for a slave rising, that's what Alphonse had told him. At the first sight of flames the militia would have license to murder at will. There were no rules for quelling a rising; any presumption of innocence would be lost, and no further "proof" needed. The restless militia might proceed directly to the punishment phase, which would be swift and brutal, wreaked upon children and women alike, every family in the yard, because they were slaves at the site of a rising.

Jack could not outrun a horse, he was already wheezing from Raleigh’s kick. With only seconds to act and none to think, he seized a fist-sized stone from the circle beneath the red ashes of the cookfire. He couldn't spare an instant to feel the searing pain as it scorched his hand, but raced a few steps after Raleigh and threw the hot stone with a juggler’s precision and all his strength.

He heard the smack and the hiss against the horse’s rump, and saw the animal rear up with a shriek, prancing backwards on its hind hooves, still some distance from the cane. Raleigh struggled to hold on, lost his grip on the torch, but caught it up again much higher, closer to the flame. It blazed up ferociously in the breeze, and the frightened horse bucked again.

Then a sudden hot, dry wind gusted in fiercely off the cane; from far behind the horse, Jack could feel the heat on his face. He could see the flames blaze backward along the loose strip of oily cloth, engulfing Raleigh’s hand and wrist. The horse finally wrenched itself free of it’s burden, and Raleigh fell backward with a scream, as the wind blew the flames back along his sleeve. He tried to cast the torch away as he fell, but the flames welded it to his grasp. He wasn’t able to roll away under the horse’s stamping hooves, pinned there by the animal’s fury, flailing his burning arm. The maddened animal twisted around and bucked one last time, and Jack saw the hooves crash down on the man underneath. The horse bolted off into the dark, but there was no more shrieking or writhing from the figure on the ground. Other patches of his clothing sparked, smoked, ignited. The toasty scent of burning linen mingled with more sickening odors. Stephen Raleigh was the only thing ablaze in the dark, open field.

Jack found himself racing toward the hellish tableau, with the crazed idea of doing something, anything, but he hadn't any implements for beating off a blaze, and the heat forced him back. The shouting from the cabins was suddenly louder and nearer; sick with horror, Jack could only keep running into the protection of the tall cane, running blindly away from the eerie glow and the crackle of flames, from ghosts and death. There was no appeasing the gods of death, there never would be, not in the Indies. This nightmare was far from over.

(Top: Slave Rebellion handbill; Jamaica, 1832. Image Reference PRO-5, as shown on, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library)

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