ninety-one              

             Slaves assembled, as for an inspection, talk among themselves:

            "Somethin' wrong. Wind blowin' ev'ry which-way; plum abno'mal. Look. Doin' it again. See de way dat dus' devil carryin' on. Somethin' brewin'; I can feels it. Somethin' downright om'nous."

            "What mean om'nous?"

            "Mean bad news."

            "You said it. Massah don' call no meetin' witout dey's prob'bly woe."

             "What you s'pose?"

            "Don' like guessin'. Hard to tell wit de Massah's mine dese days."

            "Amen, brothah. Bet it gots to do wit Mistah Tune."

            "Could be."

            "Ain' been 'roun' since mo'nin'. When you ev' know Tune not 'roun' all day?"

            "Mayhap  quit."

            "None o' us be dat lucky."

            "Him dismiss'."

            "Him what?"

            "I say, him dis-miss'."

            "Who tol' you dat foo' lie? Likelier yonder settin' sun 'bout-face an' rise."

            "Drew seed Massah an' Mistah Tune arguin' jus' 'fo'e noontime. Tell 'em, Drew. Seed  Massah Zach'ry knock Tune down wit a punch."

            "Dat true, Drew?"

            "True."

            "Drew seed Mist'ess out dere wit 'em whilst dey tuss'lin'. Seems like her de cause. Tell 'em, Drew."

            "Her dere, sho 'nuff; not claimin' her de cause."

            "Heared her squealin' like a stuck pig runnin' out de Big House. Dat right? Seed her ben' Tune's ear whilst shakin' 'er fist in Massah's face."

            "Mos' likely her complainin' 'bout Massah Zach'ry's Jewel."

            "Jewel back? De pillah-niggah?"

            "Bes' stifle dat."

            "Swoll up like a pumpkin, I hear tell."

            "Naw!"

            "'Spec' de chile come White."

            "Keep up talk like dat, invite de whip."

            "Massah Zach'ry don' approves no whip."

            "'Pends on was it earned. 'Spec' us punish' good fo' de slack'nin' off done lately."

            "Slack'nin' off sheeit. I, fo' one, been wo'kin' my ass to de bone."

            "'Coun' you still holdin' dat bottomland Massah Zach'ry give—what Tune don' like. Boys what got dem plots, like 's not be buried on 'em; Tune see to it."

            "Not iffen Tune be sacked like Drew here say."

            "Unlikely. I say Mistah Tune be de tail what wag de dog. Gots aw de power hisse'f, don' play by no one else's rules. Young Massah Zach'ry try but don' stay 'roun' long 'nuff see things done proper—an' de on'y time him did you fellas cross him up. Far 's de niggahs on dis plantation go, Mistah Tune Lawd an' Massah. Always have been, always be, long 's him keep a grip on dat rawhide whip."

            "Look sharp; someun comin'."

            All eyes dart toward the front porch steps as Beulah, followed by Marisee and Priscilla, amble down the stairs to join the complement; Tessie, limping afterwards, merges with the throng, as well. Everyone falls silent; there has not been such a gathering since the announcement of Zachariah's death.

 

 

            "Jewel?... JEWEL?"

            Zachary has searched in every room—except Felicia's; he goes there now—angry his request has been ignored:

            "Jewel is to be present, standing by my side."

            He knocks; there is no answer.

            Beulah was to have brought her:

            "Her sleepin'; feelin' poorly; it 'bout nigh her time."

            He knocks again; then barges in—bristling with frustration:

            "Wake her. See that she attends me out on the lawn. Insist it is of the utmost importance that she be present."

            There is no sign of Felicia—with whom he has once more quarrelled:

            "Zachary, you're insane! You cannot; I absolutely forbid it! What would people say? About us? About ME? OH, PLEASE, I BEG OF YOU, PLEASE!"

            He parts the bedroom curtains, looks out and down at those amassed—Jewel not among them—mindful of the stress in Tessie's terse report:

            "Her gone."

...misconstruing the import of her fatalistic words:

            "I lef' 'er, she be snoozin'; come back, poof, not dere."

            Dashing from Felicia's bedroom, Zachary descends the stairs—three at a stride—races to the den, takes down his rifle, opens to check its chamber and SNAPS it shut.

 

 

            Out front in the crowded twilit courtyard, anxious figures murmur:

            "Where Mist'ess, Priscilla?"

            Priscilla plays mum

            "Prissy! Beulah axe you a question. Where Mist'ess? An' what you know 'bout Jewel gone missin'?"

            "Tessie, you hush up. I axed Priscilla. Priscilla, talk!"

            Priscilla flinches, terrified lest her secret be exposed—having given her solemn oath never to say a word upon accepting Felicia's deal:

            "You will say nothing. Understood, Priscilla? Not a solitary word. When Mister Tune arrives you will show him to my room, then us to 'her' room, without being seen. Fail and you shall NEVER be granted your precious freedom. Succeed and I shall pen and sign the document first thing tomorrow."

             Yet could she earn emancipation at such an awful price, for surely they meant Jewel grave bodily harm—despite assurances to the contrary.

            "Don't be silly. We are merely going to teach the girl a lesson."

            But Priscilla knew both then and now—as Beulah and company stare, the collective weight of scrutiny bearing down hard, blood realigning allegiance to those whose plight is sharedthat silence, should she maintain it, guarantees Jewel's end.

            "Tune and Mistress waylaid Jewel; drug her off to de Quarters!" In one spontaneous motion, the slaves break ranks... "Her have a gunMistress do!" ... rushing toward the danger despite Priscilla's warning... "THEY PROMISE ONLY GONNA WHUP HER!" ... deaf to false assurances shouted in their wake.