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by Mary Brockway
Category: Historical Fiction
Description: The MacMichael family struggles to survive war reconstruction and the brutal murder of a daughter. Former slaves, Phoebe and Ezra are devoted to the family.
eBook Publisher: Wings ePress, Inc., 2010 2010
eBookwise Release Date: May 2010
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [422 KB]
Reading time: 254-356 min.
Chandler followed the baying hounds tracking Ezra. As he wound through a growth of new pines near the mill, the hound's tones changed to excited yelps. "Damn! They've found his scent." He cantered into a clearing where the bayou met the river. The sheet-covered men were watching the water, clearly visible in the light from a full moon. Two of them had their rifles aimed at something bobbing in the sluggish bayou. Drawing his own pistol, Chan fired into the air, hoping the distraction would give Ezra time to reach the opposite shore.
One of the men wheeled his horse around and pointed his rifle directly at Chandler's chest. Another man continued firing into the water. The bobbing object disappeared. "I think I got him," the rifleman shouted. The others dismounted and ran to the bayou's edge.
Ranson raised his sheet and spat. "With no help from my neighbor. Why didn't you stay up at your house with your whining sisters and let real southern men handle that nigger?"
Chandler aimed his pistol at Ranson. "Put that gun away before I blow it off your arm." He watched him slowly lower the rifle. "If you'd fought the Yankees instead of spending most of the war getting rich off them, I might think you were a real southerner. Damn lucky I didn't shoot without warning."
Ranson didn't reply. The hounds acted confused, sniffing along the edge of the water. Ranson called to his men, "Hendry and Cobb, ride around the bayou and whistle if there's any sign we got the nigger. We'll stay here 'til we see you on the other side."
Chandler took a long breath, wishing he had his jug with him. He wasn't certain, but thought he'd seen a slight rippling close to the bushes edging the opposite side. Could have been a possum or a water moccasin.
A penetrating whistle doused his hopes. Ranson and his men and dogs hurried away to join the other two.
Chan followed. "Got to save Ezra," he muttered.
The men were gathered near the cemetery gate. They had Ezra trussed tightly at the ankles and wrists. Chan couldn't see any obvious wounds. He pulled his gun out again. "Ezra Simon didn't kill my sister. Turn him loose. Witnesses will testify he was at Persimmon working in the vegetable patch when Diantha was murdered."
"Witnesses are all your relatives, Chan. Why should any judge believe a crazy woman, a couple silly girls, and a nigger cook?"
Chan fought hard to keep from pulling the trigger. "Gentlemen don't talk like that about ladies, Ranson, but then, I have doubts you were ever a real gentleman." He pivoted Rebel sharply and moved behind Ezra. "Now untie him."
"You don't dare shoot me, MacMichael. My men will testify against you." Ranson, removed his sheet, reached for his flask, and drank long. "Come on boys, take Ezra into town. Maybe he'll tell us where his boy is hiding if he feels a little hot tar on that black skin."
Chandler knew Ranson was right about both statements. The men hitched a rope to Ranson's saddle and pulled Ezra forward. After attaching a longer rope from Ranson's saddle and tying it to the prisoner's wrist. Ranson began to ride slowly away with Ezra stumbling behind the horse. "You'll kill him before you get a chance at the tar bucket, Ranson. Let him ride with me."
"When you hand over your guns," Ranson shouted.
Chandler tossed his two pistols to Ranson.
"And the one in your boot, Chan."
He flipped a derringer to Ranson, and waited while Ezra mounted behind him.
Ranson raised an arm. "Come on, boys. Let's move to town. Keep the sheets over you."
Chandler felt Ezra shiver with cold or fear. He pulled a rolled saddle blanket out and draped it over the poor man. "Sorry, Ezra. Couldn't get there in time to keep them from finding you."
"Don't fret, Mistah Chandler. I has a tough skin."
The men followed Chan the five miles to Landdower. He winced as Ranson and his men announced their arrival by shooting a volley from their rifles when they reached the edge of the town square. The signal to gather for a lynching had become common during the past two years.
Including the Occupation Army's garrison, Landdower's population had risen to five
thousand. Many citizens condoned lynching as a deterrent to rebellious Negroes. He sniffed. A fire was heating the tar pot. Ranson had already set the gruesome task into operation. He must have known if he didn't find Jess, he'd find someone.
Shouting voices answered his summons. A mob carrying torches entered the square from several directions. Chan felt Ezra stiffen. Hanging from a limb on a big oak tree was a noose.
The odor from smoky pitch torches and hot tar mingled in Chan's nostrils. Another definable stench clung to the crowd, the animal smell of a mob. He had known the scent several times during the war when troops scrambled in retreat. Never had there been time for analyzing, but he suspected the odor accompanied fear or anger, and perhaps some aboriginal instinct for survival. Scanning the crowd, he guessed there were at least fifty men, a few young boys, and several women hurrying toward the big oak tree in the center of the square.
A muffled voice beside him snarled. "C'mon, you niggah. We gonna paint some black into your hide 'case you forgettin' you ain't white."
Surrounded by sheet-clad men, Chan was helpless to prevent Ezra from being pulled to the ground. He spun in the saddle, leaned and snatched a rifle from beneath one of the sheets. Spurring his horse, he forced two of the men to jump or be trampled. Another grabbed the reins. Chan knocked him aside with his peg leg, and reined Rebel to the edge of the crowd. Through the smoky haze he could see Ezra being dragged toward a flatbed wagon someone had pulled up to the oak tree.
Chan sighted the rifle, praying that it was loaded. He lowered the gun. "Can't shoot enough of them." He tried to focus his mind on some way to save Ezra. Where in hell were the Yankee soldiers? Weren't government troops supposed to stop insurrection? To keep us rebels from killing former slaves?
A voice from the crowd yelled, "There's MacMichael. He took my gun. Get him."
Two sheeted men ran forward. Chan spurred his horse, causing him to rear and scatter the men to the ground. He wheeled around and galloped toward an open cotton storage shed at the north edge of the square. Rebel's shoes echoed on the wooden floor as Chan rode into the shed. He stopped to watch helplessly as they stripped and dragged Ezra onto the wagon.
Ezra's scream of terror filled the air. Chandler knew without seeing it, that a hot tar brush had already found its mark. Swallowing the gorge choking his throat, he took stock of his options. He had to act ... maybe a distraction ... pulling a match from his pocket, he struck it on his peg leg.
"Drop that gun, Chan. Now! If you fire the cotton, I'll shoot both you and your nigger!"
Chancing that Ranson wouldn't shoot and draw the Blue Coats into action, Chan ignored the threat and threw the match into a pile of cotton waste. If it ignited the building, Ranson ought to be very busy trying to stamp it out. Burning cotton should also bring the Yankees, who wouldn't like to lose that cash crop. Usually they had the shed well guarded.
He twisted in the saddle toward Ranson, standing partly sheltered by a bale of cotton. "I should have known you'd hide while your thugs did your dirty work, Ranson."
Still clutching the rifle, Chan spurred his mount and raced out of the building. A bullet zinged over his head. Leaning low, he rode into the shadows at the edge of the square. Laughter and shouts came from the vicinity of the oak tree. He maneuvered Rebel across the end of the square and around a picket fence bordering a house. Squinting into the flickering light, he could see that Ezra's naked body lay face down on the flatbed wagon. Feathers floated into the torches and burned. Couldn't tell if Ezra was still breathing.
Chan scanned the square. He hadn't been followed. Ranson's gang was too busy torturing an innocent man. Couldn't see the cotton shed. If it had caught fire, the smoke would mingle with that covering half the town. There must be some folks who wouldn't take part in this, like whoever lived in the white house behind him. Were they deaf? Most likely too scared to interfere.
They had drawn the wagon directly beneath the hanging noose. From his vantage point, which was at least thirty yards to the parked wagon, he'd need to ride through the crowd to reach Ezra. Damned peg. Couldn't dismount. Couldn't get a clear shot. Had to get closer. His heart thudded as three men pulled Ezra to his feet. Supported firmly by the burly men, Ezra stood directly beneath the noose. Two more men climbed to the wagon bed and pulled the noose around Ezra's neck.
"Nigger, you best tell how you raped that white girl and kilt her."
The crowd answered, "Yeah!"
A woman screamed. "Mebbe you won't go to hell if you confess."
Chandler couldn't hear any reply from Ezra, only more obscene remarks from the men and one loudmouthed woman. He moved his horse back into the square. It would take a clear aim and a perfect shot to hit the rope. He glanced up at the sturdy limb where it had been tied. One shot couldn't break that. He had to try to hit the rope. An awful chance. Might hit Ezra, or if the report startled the wagon horse, Ezra's neck would stretch and break He raised the gun and sighted. Wavering torches made a sure target impossible.
Vaguely, he heard the sound of pounding hooves. He lowered the rifle and noted that some folks surrounding the wagon had turned their faces to see who was joining them. Chan sighted again, and held his breath and squeezed the trigger. He heard the report and closed his eyes, dreading to look and see if the wagon had moved. A gasp came from the gathering.
Chan opened his eyes, expecting the worst. A blue clad rider waving a long saber charged toward the big oak. The Yankee leapt from his saddle onto the wagon, cut the hanging rope from the tree, and Ezra slumped to the wagon bed.
The Blue Coat knelt to loosen the noose.
Chan rode quickly through the scattering crowd to Ezra's side. "Sorry, Ezra. Couldn't help you quickly enough."
Ezra's swollen eyes opened slowly. He touched the bloody rope marks on his throat, and coughed deeply. "Did your best, Mistah Chan. I has a tough hide. Jest my neck I's worried about."
"I'm sorry too," a voice from the wagon said. "A corpsman with a stretcher is coming." The tall officer climbed down and doffed his hat. "Lieutenant Clare O'Leary, from Ohio."
Chandler swallowed and replied. "Majors from the south count for nothing anymore, else I'd outrank you, Lieutenant. I'm Chandler MacMichael from Persimmon Bayou. Mighty glad you came in time. Ezra means a lot to me. Where were all you Yankees when that mob did their nasty work?"
"Half the garrison is on leave for the weekend. Rest of us got an urgent summons from Clayville. Someone blew up the tracks and wrecked a train up there." The lieutenant leaned to check the wagon horse. "Damn lucky they hobbled this nag, or your friend would be dead."
"If I had known that for sure, I'd have shot sooner."
Lieutenant O'Leary bent to remove the noose. He whistled through his teeth and handed the rope to Chan. "You're a damn good shot, MacMichael. Bullet hit just below the place I sliced
it. Frayed the rope nearly in two."