thirty-nine             

            From an elevated vantage, one enormous eye surveys the surroundings, pupil grossly magnified by a telescopic lens: cotton fields lie vacant... there is no one in the orchards... stock, in a distant pasture, is grazing unattended. The overseer's pit-bull sneezes, jerks her head between her legs and gnaws at a flea. Mister Tune hawks and spits, then slowly turns, refocusing on: row crops... woods... upper and lower meadows... barnyard, smokehouse, and woodpile similarly deserted... the livery (save for Donner) empty as well. Tune dredges from his throat another load of phlegmjowls distending—then expels it.

            "Nigger-lover."
(A full day's work being wasted so that Master Zachary Squire can play the fool.)

            A creek comes into view as the spyglass pans.

            "One slave... two... a dozen there, just standin', loafin'... five or six pretendin' to do their work."
(So the Master must be near.) Tune spots him, working with another group (applyin' tools like props, making a farce of Zachary's "Massah Plan." Incredible;
a gaggle of shiftless field hands acquiring bona fide acreage; regardless it be swamp. Land is power. Giving property to one's property will never serve. Nothing short of wages could faster kill the South.)

            The pit-bull whines, then cowers; Tune misses with a kick... resuming, then, surveillance left to right.
(Congregatin'. Dumb as he may be, the Negro is a schemer; never let 'im group. That bunch yonder—Drew, Larchmont, Cotton, Skeeter—every one a lying, no-account slacker. Put those four together and the Lord Himself would have cause for consternation.)

            Tune watches... spies the men talking, making gestures (hatching a plot no doubt).

            "Her not so pale dis sausage o' mine 'scape her notice."

            "Sausage? You say sausage? I say grub."

            "Mo'e like a maggot."

            "Sausage, sheeit, dat toy yo' always playin' wit no bigger dan a midget's thumb."

(You have to nip plots in the bud—squelch 'em, stamp 'em outor watch 'em lead to mayhem.)

            "As I was sayin', all de while us havin' dis li'ly chat..."

            "Chat, sheeit, t'was you likely done all de talkin'."

            "... her eyeballs drawin' a bead on de bulge in dese here trousers."

            "Won'erin what dat puny aco'n be."

(Ignore the leader. The popular opinion is to catch and punish the leader, but that creates a martyr. No, ignore the leader and seize his weakest follower. Beat the livin' daylights out of him; others will toe the line.)

            "Aco'ns grows into oak trees, might I remine you."

            "Will you lissen to dis man?"

            "I tryin' to; if you'd let 'im tell 'is story."

            "Cotton sho 'nuff talked wit her; seen 'em by de coop."

            "See dere? A eyewitness. I not lyin'. So us chattin' an' her tellin' me 'bout how de Mist'ess likes dis certain kine egg fo' breakfas', an' I star's weighin' in my mine de times-two muskmelon fillin' out her dress"

            "Now it muskmelon titties? Cotton, you fixin' to plough dis woman o' slice 'er up an' eats 'er?"

            "I might do both."

            "Big talk."

            "Deeelusions."

            "Huh?"

            "Cotton got what dey call deeelusions o' gran'er. "

            "Whatev' dat be."

            "It means de mine be bitin' off mo' dan it can chew."

            "Ain' dat a fac'."

            Tune spits. He does not like the looks of things. (Rebellion is a nasty business. Two years ago, a mere three counties over, Negroes on the Hunt's place staged an uprising. Slaughtered everything in sight—men, women, girls, boys, and all the livestock. Just went mad, like rabid dogs.)

            "...an' dis here aco'n, as you calls it, c'mence to show its potential..."

            "Yassuh, deeelusions sho 'nuff."

            "So I sugges' to Priscilla dat... "

             "Priscilla?"

            "Yeah, Priscilla. Somethin' wrong wit dat name?"

            "Nope."

            "...dat her meets me..."

            "Fo' a cocker span'el."

            "Larchmon', how'd you like I shoves dis rake up yo' butt?"

            "You an' who else?"

           Tune clicks his tongue—his mount moves forward, switch-backing down the incline—rider, just in case, removing his rifle from its saddle-side holster.

            "Keep cool, keep cool. No call fo' fists be flyin' 'coun' o' Cotton on de trail o' some highfalutin poon. Larchmon', yo' jus' cov'tous."

            "Cov'tous, sheeit. Dat Priscilla a mi'kweed. Wouldn' so much 's touch 'er wit a ten foot po'e."

            "Talk 'bout deeelusions."

            "Cotton, you really axt dat gal step out?"

            "Sho did; af'er sundown."

            "Where to?"

            "De smokehouse."

            "Her not comin'."

            "Well... her mouth say her not comin' but her eyes say her be dere."

            "Oh, oh!"

            "What?"

            "Don' look; but guess who comin' yonder?"

            "Massah Zack?"

            "No. "

            "Sheeit; it Tune!"

            "I tol' you don' look! Makin' us look 'spicious. Ack nat'ral; ack 's if we ain' done nuthin' wrong."

            "Since when dat stop ole Tune from layin' on de snake?"

            "Res' easy, Skeeter. Cain't."

            "Cain't what?"

            "Cain't whup us."

            "Is ev'one sufferin' from deeelusions?"

            "Drew tellin' true, Skeet. It in de Massah's Massah Plan. No mo'e whuppin' witout Massah Zach'ry say-so. Weren' you lis'nin'?"

            "Lis'nin' not believin', no how, no way. Yo'all can swallow dat nonsense iffen you wants, but Skeeter know a thing o' two 'bout white fo'ks' prom'ses. Soon's us get dis bottomlan' clear, Massah fine some 'scuse an' snatch it back."

            "Massah Zack not like dat."

            "No?... Him White. Whites don' give 'way lan'—leas'wise not to niggahs."

             "Ain' dat a fac'."

            Like a bird of prey whose head stays level, eyes locked on its quarry, Tune keeps the slaves in sight. He notes they are not so bunched, and, as he draws near, that their 'conspiring' has abated. (Nip it, squelch it. Never lack for vigilance. Crack those black backs pronto when they dare to flout the law.) Tune exchanges his rifle for his whip.

            "What're you boys up to?" Heads are bowed as minds attempt to exaggerate tasks at hand. "Larchmont."

            "Yassuh, Mistah Tune. Didn' hear you comin', suh. Musta shod dat hawse wit rabbit-fuh shoes."

            "What're you boys doin' out here all alone unsupervised?"

            "Oh, us supe'vised, suh. Young Massah Zack not a hunert yar's dat-a-way."

            Tune loops his whip around the saddle horn.

            "And does your Master know you boys are idle?"

            "Idle? Us, suh? Why, mayhap us seem idle, took us a li'ly res', but look, suh, what us done so fah."

            Cotton, shouldering his rake, ventures to second Larchmont's assertion.

            "Dis plot be mine what Massah gimme 'coun' o' what I done at harves'. Him say I sho earn' it. Earn' dis time to wo'k it, too, him proclaim. "

            "Take off your hat when you're speakin' to me, boy."

            "Yassuh."

            Cotton swipes off his hat.

            Tune hawks and spits. The pit-bull sniffs at Cotton's pant leg and growls.

            Fingers tighten on rake... hoe... pickaxe... and shovel.

            "What about these three."

            "Dey mine." Tune scowls. "I mean, de Massah loan 'em to me. Dem gots he'p wit my plot 'til dey earns a plot dey own."

            Tune's face goes rigid with rage.

            "Don't you say, 'Sir,' when speakin' to your betters?" Tune cocks his leg and drives his heel into the centre of Cotton's chest. The slave topples. "Bolt!" The pit-bull clamps its jaws on Cotton's luckless arm.

            "OH, GOD! MY ARM! GOD! CALL 'ER OFF! OH, GOD!"

            Before his fear of Tune can stop him, Larchmont lifts his hoe, and, with a vicious CHOP divides the pit-bull's spine. Its jaws still hold.

            Tune seizes the rifle. A charge explodes.

            "HOLD, MISTER TUNE!"

            The shout and warning shot are Zachary's. He approaches on the run. He draws his knife and works it into the pit-bull's lifeless teeth, releasing its bite.

            "What is going on here, Mister Tune? Explain your actions. Why was this man set upon?"

            "He raised his hand to me. That rake there. He was fixin' to strike me with it."

            Zachary looks to Cotton, whose arm is mangled but perhaps unbroken.

            "Is that true?"

            "No, suh, Massah Zack. Mistah Tune done kick me in de ches' an' when I falls him sic on de wo'fhoun'."

            "Drew?"

            "Yassuh?"

            "That true?"

            Tune glares.

            "I will not be contradicted by a nigger!"

            His fearsome look is meant to intimidate. The slaves, to a man, fall silent. Zachary intercedes.

            "You men go to the house with Cotton and have Beulah tend his arm."

            Tune points at Larchmont.

            "Not him!"

            "I will not be contradicted either, Mister Tune."

            The slaves take advantage of the moment and hurriedly withdraw, leaving Master and overseer to their stalemate. Tune contrives Larchmont's torture in his mind as he stiffly dismounts. He opens his saddlebag and pulls out a burlap sack. His movements are deliberate, grimly formal. He kneels beside his pit-bull and works the sack around it like a sleeve. The blood is thick and sticky, a magnet for the flies. Tune hoists the sack, its drawstring cinching in the process, and secures it to his saddle. Then he turns to Zachary—who anticipates, and is first to speak.

            "Vengeance, sayeth the Lord, is Mine."

            "True, Master Squire; too true. But the Lord put us in charge of all lower forms, and a nigger is the lowest form ever to walk this earth. It is up to us to see God's Will be carried out; and indeed it shall be."

            "If punishment is due."

            "You saw the dog."

            "I did. I also saw the kick you dealt to Cotton's chest. What was your provocation, Mister Tune?"

            "The nigger sassed me. He was bold and disrespectful, braggin' about his land. I have held my peace 'til now because... "

            "It is not your place to do otherwise."

            "Too true again. Nonetheless, Master Squire, I would have you hear me out."

            "I know you disapprove of what I'm trying to accomplish here, but no more than I have disapproved of you."

            "Then why have I been kept in your employ?" Zachary resents the question, for he has asked it of himself and found the reason wantinganother sore reminder of his father's latent power. He fails to answer. "I'll tell you why, young Master Squire; I have been kept on lest you should fail; which you are unmistakably doing, the evidence in this sack. Your policies are soft; these boys are hardened. Grant so much as an inch, they'll steal a mile. You've given 'em more than inches, Zachary Squire, you've given 'em land, land your daddy scratched and clawed and fought for, land he grabbed from folks too weak to fend off his shenanigans. Stole it, if the truth be told, with ruthless, cutthroat tactics. Didn't know that, did you? Didn't know your daddy schemed with the likes of Fergusson and Abernathy to fix the price of cotton and put the squeeze on all them didn't want to sell? Did it all for you, his only son; left you an empire. You're wealthy, Zachary Squire, because your daddy had an iron will. People bent to it or got broke; that was his way. And here you come with your namby-pamby theories about given land to Negroes! It's you who ought be kicked in the chest then summarily flogged!"

            "You forget yourself, Mister Tune. I'll allow you are upset on account of the dog, but I will not be gainsaid any further. Is that understood?"

            Tune bristles. He has vented only half his spleen—but the time is not quite ripe. He turns his back, fits boot to stirrup, mounts, adjusts the sack, and slowly rides away without another word.