twenty-six            

            Bates sits on an ottoman... waiting... excavating a clay chunk from the instep of his boot. He smells of pomade; his hair is plastered with it. His pocket knife makes grating sounds as rubble collects in a pyramid on the oriental carpet. He shifts position. Zachary enters: washed, shaved, groomed, dressed—if far less casually than his friend, who looks up and utters:

            "Well it's about... What happened to you!?"

            Bates folds the knife with his palm and scrambles to his feet.

            "Nothing. Why?"

            "Nothin'? You must be jokin'. You drop out o' sight for days—don't come by, don't send a solitary word—you're gettin' hitched—I find out on my own—this comin' Saturday, and when I ride on over to escort you to your bachelor's last hoorahthe way we planned—you keep me waitin' half a hour then show up lookin' like a goddamn stewed tomato. Don't give me nothin', Zack. What happened?"

            "I got a little too much sun."

            "'A little too much sun,' he says. Why Zack, I hate to tell you, you're deep-fried."

            "Alright, alright. You should have seen me three days ago."

            "Can't imagine."

            Bates steps closer—his scrutiny born by Zachary with mounting irritation.

            "Satisfied?"

            "Does it hurt?"

            "Now what do you think?"

            "Don't get touchy; I only asked... Know what?"

            "No, what?"

            "It's kind o' cute... No, it is. Felicia's gonna love it. I ain't seen smoother skin on a babe's behind."

            Jewel steps in, stops short. She is amazed to see the Master so much recovered.

            Bates gapes—no longer at his pal, but rather at Jewel's dark comelinessaccounts of which he has heard but disbelieved, until this moment. He nudges Zachary.

            "Ain't you gonna introduce me?"

            "'Scuse me, Massah. 'Scuse me, suh. Wasn' 'spec'in' fine nobody here in de foyah.

            Jewel starts to leave. Bates would have her linger, but Zachary fails to speak. The girl escapes.

            "At least you coulda... Hey; hey, Zack, snap out of it."

            "That's Jewel."

            "So I gathered. Bust 'er cherry yet?"

            "What? Of course not!"

            "Fool."

            "I will not tolerate remarks..."

            "Now don't get huffy. Whether you did or didn't there's strife ahead."

            "I fail to see why."

            "Which means you also fail to consider Miss Felicia, the future Mrs. Squire."

            "What are you getting at?"

            "Good God, Zack, are you dense? Don't you got any sense about how folks feel—womenfolk in particular? That girl's prime as jonquils plucked in May. Now Miss Felicia's pretty, don't get me wrong, but Jewel..."

            "Is black."

            "So what? Black, brown, red, yellow, purple; hue don't matter. Colour 's just the wrapper; what counts is core—and that girl's core could tempt a Catholic priest to swear off celibacy. Way she eyeballed you I'd recommend yield."

            "That's ridiculous."

            "What is; your desire for her or hers for you?"

            "First of all, I'm White."

            "Pink."

            "Funny. Secondly, I'm her Master."

            "So?"

            "A Master warrants loyalty, obedience, and respect, but never love. Love is a civilized emotion. Slaves don't feel it."

            "Oh come on. I'll grant you most Masters don't deserve the love their niggers give 'em, but you know 's well as I do, niggers love."

            "Not their Masters. In any case, I do not foresee any conflict."

            "What was all that nonsense, then, at my place?"

            "I was drunk."

            "You left drunk; you arrived stone-sober—with a cock-stand stiff as pig iron for that jig."

            "You really are disgusting, Randy, unconscionably vulgar."

            "Not to mention honest. And you, my friend, are in worse shape than I thought."

            "I'm fine. Much better, truly. The other day I scarcely had the strength to..."

            "Zack, boy, I don't mean your altar-boy complexion. Smitten, is what I mean."

            "I wish to God I were. Then Saturday's scheduled 'sacrament' wouldn't seem such a farce."

            "Not smitten with Felicia; I mean with Jewel."

            Zachary's punch to the gut is thrown without hesitation. Bates doubles over... then retaliates with a paralyzing kick to Zachary's groin. The latter slumps.

            "What you two boys up to? What you doin' down dere, Mister Randolph Bates?" Beulah steps to the landing and sees her Master writhing. "YOU GONE CRAZY? YOU FIGHTIN' WIT MY... DON' YOU KNOW HIM ILL?" Beulah rushes down the stairs then  between both antagonists. "Fo' shame! Fo' shame! How coulds you!... Massah Zach'ry, you alright?"

            His wind knocked out (compounded by overwhelming nausea) Zachary struggles for breath. Bates, recovering more quickly, moves to offer aid—blocked by Beulah.

            "Stan' back, you; keeps yo' dis'ance. Nev' don' strike no White man, but let dis be fair warnin'; touch my Massah one mo'e time an' bears de brun'!"

            Bates steps back, then stoops to retrieve his fallen hat.

            "Sorry, Zack. Really I am. If you still want..."

           Beulah interrupts him, crossing her wrists—fists clenched—in a gesture unmistakeably meant to hex. Warily Bates retreatsMaster left to servant, in the interloper's wake.