The air is shocked, fractured by a sound—wood to seasoned wood; the gavel falls...
A dumbstruck crowd regains its suspended voice. The auction block is manned. Feet shuffle forward as the spectacle begins.
"What's my bid for this fine nigger? Bid him up, gentlemen. Get him 'fore he's gone. He can lift, he can tote, he's as healthy as a mule. Bid him up. Bid him quick. 'Fore he's gone."
"Five hundred. There's a start. There's a measure. Do I hear five-fifty?"
"Yes, I do. Do I hear six, gentlemen? Six? The nigger's worth it. Take a gander. Don't be shy. Step right on up. Get yourselves a better view. "
"Seven is my bid. Do I hear eight? Do I hear eight?"
"I'll say eight."
"Eight, yes I do. Do I hear nine? The bid is eight. He's worth a thousand if a penny. Touch your toes, boy. Flex them muscles. Show the folks them big strong teeth; they're straight and true."
The auctioneer's polished sing-song is having its effect; the sale becomes a full-fledged competition. Egos vie.
"Twelve hundred once. Twelve hundred twice..."
"Congratulations, sir. You own yourself a fine, broad-shouldered nigger. Next!"
The specimen on display steps down and is led off to a holding pen to be examined more minutely by the buyer.
"He was a goodun. Might as well take a walk now; get us a drink. Won't be a thing worth buying for at least another hour. They always start the bidding with something flashy, then drag out all the cripples, layabouts, and lamebrains."
Zachary appears to be grateful for this advice. Though he has seen slaves sold before, he has never taken part. His father, Zachariah, did the buying, and did it sparingly. In fact, for more than twenty years, not a single slave was bought or sold. It was a policy instituted upon the death of Zachary's mother, on which day all the female slaves (save one) were herded off to market. When the males rebelled, Zachariah hired an overseer—Mister Tune—whose methods made quick work of stifling the dissent. Years passed, masculinity predominating. Zachary grew, matured, was being groomed to take command, when finally he recognized his father's short-sightedness. The plantation's work force was aging without prospects for renewal. But when he brought this to Zachariah's attention, the patriarch would not budge; he had his reasons; they were not to be discussed. Eventually, Zachary won concessions, but only two—a pair of house servants as a gift on his eighteenth birthday. "Not for breeding".
The headband of Zachary's hat has soaked up all the sweat it can. Excess trickles along his sideburns in sweltry steady streams. His clean-shaven upper lip is likewise awash—droplets similarly beaded across his prominent handsome brow. His eyes are blue—like his mother's—a shade of azure typical of clear autumnal skies. His nose is aquiline—like his father's—and militantly hawkish. Full lips help to modify the martial cast of his sharply chiselled chin. His teeth are white and glisten when he breaks into a smile (which he does rarely). He is tall and trim, not a tissue tending toward fat, and put-together mightily.
"I'd be happy to have you join me, sir."
"Thank you kindly."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mister Squire. No, this way. I'm privy to a place some few streets over where a man can quench his thirst unhurried. This heat is powerful oppressive, don't you agree?"
"I do, Mister Ebersole."
The two men skirt a crowd and leave the main thoroughfare. They pass a slave pen. Ebersole pinches his nostrils. Zachary stops and sniffs. A scent has caught his attention, then an activity—one man mimicking the idle sway of companions waiting single-file in line, voice upraised in an improvised lament, hand-claps keeping time.
♫Dere ain't no woe
a man don' know
if dat man be a niggah♫
"We hears you."
♫Lawd, save us...♫
♫... delivah us
♫... dis load♫
Accenting rhythms by slapping his thighs and chest, the singer shifts percussion. Faces among the chorus grow animated. One among them—a young woman—broadly beams; like dawn the light she sheds seems to spread to those around her. It is she that Zachary notices, either for her pheromones, beauty, or prepossessing smile
Ebersole gives a tug to his spellbound companion's sleeve.