WHERE WERE WE?
Oh yes … It was the summer of 1852.
Colonel Trent Winters had ordered his men to tie the field slave, Tabari, to the ‘tree’, awaiting his punishment for trying to escape from the plantation.
Trent’s wife, Collette, had suffered a nervous breakdown after she surmised that her beloved husband had a torrid affair with the beautiful slave, or ‘house servant’, Amana, and was guilt ridden from her own infidelity with her dear friend, Caroline, the wife of Senator Jeb Harrison.
Incensed over Amana’s and Trent’s triste, Collette ordered the plantation overseer, Mr. Tolivar, to see to it that Amana was not just ‘gone’, ‘whipped’ or ‘sold’ … no … Collette wanted Amana ‘dead’!
And what about the Doctor? That conniving charlatan had duped the Colonel into believing that Tabari was responsible for the Doctor’s house having been burned to the ground, and had fleeced Trent into paying thousands of dollars to make the Doctor ‘whole’ again.
Poor Tom Wilkins and Melba. They were about to lose their Underground Railroad newspaper, the ‘Herald Beacon’, because Deputy Harley and the two hapless saddle tramps, Randy and Seth, had captured Tabari by piecing together the fact that Tom and Melba had assisted in Tabari’s escape.
And then there’s the humble and God-fearing Jeffersons, Frank and Freda. Harley was also after this aged couple for aiding and abetting Tabari in his escape. Violating the Fugitive Slave Law. To punish them, he was hell-bent on taking the Jefferson’s farm, ‘lock, stock and barrel’.
And let’s not forget the Reverend Baxter and Pastor Jessie, whose ‘Chapel Cross Church’ was also facing the wrath of Deputy Harley. He’d threated to punish the Church as well, for aiding and abetting Tabari’s escape.
“I HAVE BUSINESS IN N’AWLINS late this afternoon” Trent had said to his beloved Collette as she lie in bed recuperating from her nervous breakdown. “That is, of course, if you’re feeling well enough. Sadie will be here. If you need me, I can postpone my meetings. I’d never leave unless you’re feeling well enough”.
He was on one knee, their cheeks almost touching. Trent truly loved his wife, and would have adjourned all of his business duties if necessary to insure her recovery.
“Oh, I’ll be just fine. I’ll miss you something terribly” she whispered lovingly. “I’m getting my strength back now. Yes, I’m feeling much better and, like you said, Sadie will be here. Now you go do what you must. I’ll be just fine”.
* * *
BEFORE Collette had walked to Tolivar’s cottage to deliver Amana’s death sentence, the Colonel had a brief discussion with him.
Trent had asked the Doctor and his two sidekicks to tie Tabari to the ‘tree’. This was forty-eight hours ago.
Fortunately for Tabari, the Colonel hadn’t told them how to tie him up. Seth and Randy had simply stood Tabari up straight, wrapped his arms around the trunk, and then tied each wrist.
Still, no water, no food, no relief from the scorching sun.
After an hour, Tabari had moved his wrists back and forth in a ‘sawing’ motion, which slightly stretched the length of the rope, enough to lower it on the tree trunk so, in time, he was able to kneel on the ground. His wrists still remained above his head. Extremely painful, but still much more preferable than being forced to stand and be ‘hung by the wrists’.
Try as he might, he couldn’t loosen either knot.
By dusk on the first day, the rope had burned through both wrists nearly to their bones. By nightfall, he had no choice but to empty his bladder and bowel. For a brief moment, he almost chuckled at this otherwise horrific experience - how the pain in all of his muscles and wrists made this degrading act seem pale in comparison.
Now, he was near death.
And Trent was conflicted. He believed Tabari had caused the Doctor’s house to be burned to the ground, a cowardly act that was costing the Colonel thousands of dollars in damages to a quack doctor that he couldn’t stomach. He’d already whipped Tabari for that unforgivable transgression.
It was obvious to him why Tabari tried to escape. A person’s natural inclination is to avoid further pain. The same must be true of negroes, even if they’re only three-fifths human.
But what most conflicted Trent was fear of a possible uprising among his nearly one hundred slaves. He knew well the publicized slave revolt that took place in Virginia some twenty years earlier. About seventy blacks, both slaves and freemen, rose up and killed nearly sixty white folk, before the militia stepped in and stopped the carnage. Nearly half were hung or sold to owners in other states. But the damage was done.
Trent remembered how he just recently stopped Mr. Tolivar from whipping an innocent young slave woman, who was about to be used as a sacrificial lamb if no slave would reveal where Tabari had planned to escape to. Trent sensed that Tolivar thought he was getting ‘soft’. A statement needed to be made: “Protecting a runaway slave would be severely punished”.
The Colonel knew the threat of punishment was necessary, but he also had to consider the havoc that a revolt would have on his sugar cane plantation. He generally employed five ‘overseers’, including Tolivar, and each carried a shotgun, rifle or pistol. This threat had always proven effective, since it was nearly inconceivable that only one or two slaves would attack a white man or woman, knowing that their death would be quick and certain.
But mob mentality could overcome that fear. Trent couldn’t allow a large number of his slaves to become angry and assemble. One physical confrontation could whip the others into a fury and fuel a battle that he could quickly lose. Slaves’ quarters could be burned, animals let loose, perhaps his own mansion set on fire. There were many ‘militia’ in New Orleans that would certainly gather and restore the status quo, but repairing the damage would set him back for months and severely damage his pocketbook. New slaves could be purchased, but the setback would take an ugly toll.
He knocked on Tolivar’s door.
“Mr. Tolivar, I’d like to have a word with you”.
Tolivar was buttoning his shirt as he answered the door.
“I’m sure you’ve seen Tabari tied to that tree” as he looked and pointed.
Tolivar’s expression acknowledged the obvious.
“Of course” Tolivar replied. “I didn’t say anything because I figured that was between you and the two men the Doctor brought by two days’ ago”.
He started to sweat. “Please don’t ask me to kill Tabari” Tolivar thought to himself. “I done told that nigger that no harm would come to him if we lied about who caused the fire to the Doctor’s house. I know he tried to escape, but damn!”
“I’m on my way to N’awlins for a day or two” Trent continued. “I haven’t decided what to do with him. I have a lot on my mind, especially with Mrs. Winters. The Doctor feels she was overwhelmed with exhaustion, and wants her to have complete rest. You’re aware of that?”
“Well, I knew the Doctor had stayed last night to tend to her. My condolences. But she’s a strong woman and I’m sure she’ll get better right away”.
“Yes, yes. I’m sure she’ll be just fine” Trent replied.
“About Tabari. Untie him and take him to his quarters. Hell, he may be dead already. His kind can tend to him. Let him rest today and tomorrow. But the following day I want him back in the fields, hard at work. Is that understood?”
“Yes sir. Let me finish dressing and I’ll see to it right away”.
Tolivar went back inside and watched the Colonel mount his horse and ride off.
“Hank! Hank! Come help me with Tabari” he yelled to one of the overseers.
The two walked up to the tree. Tabari was unconscious, his head bowed and forehead resting against the trunk.
“Jesus” Hank stammered. “Look at his wrists!”
“Never mind” Tolivar barked. “Cut the rope”.
Hank took his knife and cut the rope off Tabari’s left wrist. He swayed to the right and slumped lifeless to the ground. His skin was pale, his lips grotesquely chapped as he lay motionless.
“Is he alive?” Hank asked. “He don’t look alive”.
Tolivar went to squeeze Tabari’s left wrist to feel if he had a pulse, but instantly rejected that idea when he saw how ugly a wound he had. They both just continued to stare at his lifeless body.
“I don’t think so” Tolivar replied. “Poor bastard” he thought. “He sure got the short end of the stick”.
“Naw, he ain’t dead!” Hank stammered. “I see his chest movin’. He’s breathin’”.
“Quick! Grab a cart and we’ll haul him to his quarters. And tell one of the women to fetch some water. Quick!”