Read an Excerpt
Web Steele whipped his head around as the flat report of the shot carried to him through the cool mid-October air. Jerking hard on the reins, he drew horse and buggy to a halt in the middle of the road. While the breeze carried the small dust cloud away, he peered past the imposing archway on his left that housed the gate to the Jason Hart plantation.
Letting his gaze follow the narrow, winding road that led to the mansion and its complex of buildings nestled in a thick stand of trees, he listened for any further sound of trouble. The gunshot seemed to have come from that way, but the pounding of the horse’s hooves and the whir of the wheels had suppressed the report enough to make it impossible to be sure.
Pulling his gaze from the Hart mansion, Steele looked up the road ahead of him as his horse blew and stamped a hoof. The Virginia sky was clear, and the brilliant light of the early afternoon sun revealed no movement in that direction. The John Ruffin plantation lay two miles further on, but the shot was too loud to have come from there.
Turning around on the seat, he looked down the road behind him. The Steele plantation–from which he had just come–was nearest, but it also was too far away to have been the source of the shot. There was no sign of life except for the birds that hopped about in the branches of the towering trees that lined both sides of the road. Sunlight danced on the orange and golden leaves as they fluttered in the autumn breeze.
Steele looked to his right across the rolling hills toward Richmond, but saw nothing moving.
Suddenly there was a second shot, followed by a third. This time he knew it was coming from the Hart place. The gate beneath the archway was open. Snapping the reins, he sent the horse galloping under the archway, following the narrow, winding road. Another shot rang out, and Web felt a vast hollow in his stomach. Instinct told him that what he had been expecting to happen on both the Ruffin and Hart plantations was now in progress directly ahead of him.
The mansion was a quarter-mile from the road. As the buggy bounded into the spacious yard, another shot reverberated through the air, the sharp sound coming from the rear. Guiding the horse along the path to the backside of the house, Steele saw Jonas Hart and his two sons hunkered behind an overturned wagon, facing the tool and wood shed, which was close to the barn, about forty yards from the rear of the mansion. There were splintered places on the wagon where bullets had chewed wood.
Drawing the buggy to a sudden stop, Steele saw Mabel Hart, her oldest daughter, Mary Ann, and daughter-in-law, Chloe, collected on the back porch of the mansion with the butler and the maid. All were wide-eyed with fear.
As Web Steele jumped out of the buggy, he saw that Jonas was holding a revolver with one hand and a bleeding shoulder with the other. Sons David, twenty-two, and Daniel, twenty-one, were not armed. A group of slaves could be seen at the edge of a clearing some fifty yards further back, where their small cabins huddled in a circle. They too looked frightened.
Steele knew his instincts were correct. Hart had a slave revolt on his hands. Some of them were holed up in the tool and wood shed, and were armed. The absence of Hart’s sixteen-year-old daughter and fourteen-year-old son might mean they were being held hostage.
Jonas Hart shouted, “Web, take cover! We’ve got real trouble here!”
Steele took one look at the open window next to the shed’s only door and saw the barrel of a revolver glint in the sunlight. He dashed to where Jonas and his sons were clustered behind the overturned wagon. “Please tell me that Darrel and Melissa aren’t in there!”
A gray pallor was on Jonas Hart’s pain-pinched face. Even his lips were colorless. At forty-four, he owned the large plantation and had done well, but Steele knew that Jonas was sometimes unnecessarily harsh with his slaves. He had come close to warning Jonas about it on several occasions, but the man was sixteen years his senior, and he could not bring himself to do it.
Jonas’s voice was tight as he replied, “They’re in the shed, all right, Web.”
“How many slaves in there?” Web asked.
“Do I know them?”
“Yeah. Dexter and Orman.”
Eyeing the blood that was running between Jonas’s fingers as he gripped his shoulder, Web said, “You’d better get to the house and let Mabel tend to that wound.”
“Naw,” growled the plantation owner, “it’s only a scratch. It’ll be all right. Main thing right now is to bring this situation to an end.”
Looking back toward the shed, Steele said, “Dexter and Orman, eh? What do they want?”
Gritting his teeth in pain, Jonas replied, “To go free. They say if we’ll let them go, they’ll release the kids when they’re a safe distance from here.”
“What brought this on?”
“Nothing special, they just–”
“Tell him the truth, Pa,” butted in David, who was slave overseer for his father. “I’ve been warning you this was going to happen.”
“Shut up!” snapped Jonas. “If you’d be a little more stern with these lazy whelps, it wouldn’t make me look so mean when I have to discipline them.”
David Hart had been developing a distaste for slavery for the past two years. He and his father had had many heated discussions about it. Jonas accused him of becoming an “abolitionist Yankee” in his heart.
Before David could respond, a voice came from within the shed. “We’s gettin’ tired of waitin’, Massa Jonas! We want those horses, and we want ‘em right now!”
Web Steele recognized the voice of Dexter, whom he had known for several years. In a half-whisper, he said, “Jonas, Dexter knows me well. So does Orman. Do you think it would help if I talk to them?”
“Couldn’t hurt, that’s for sure,” spoke up Daniel. “Both of them like you.”
“What about it, Jonas?” pressed Steele.
“Go ahead. Talk to them. Like Dan said, it can’t hurt for you to try.”
“Massa Jonas!” bellowed Orman. “We saw Massa Web come in. You can do yo’ talkin’ later. We want those horses, or we’s gonna be forced to hurt dese chillin o’ yo’s!”
Jonas’s anger broke. “You harm my kids and you’ll wish you’d never been born, Orman!”
There was no response from the shed. Setting his gaze on Steele, Jonas said, “Well, do your talking.”
“First I have to know what David meant when he told you to be truthful with me.”
“Aw, I just found it necessary to give them both a good belt-whipping, that’s all. They’ve been getting lazier by the day. David won’t chastise them, so they just get continually worse.”
“How bad did you whip them?”
“Not too bad.”
“Did you draw blood?”
“Pa, you expect too much of them,” said David. “Their bodies get tired like ours do. If you’d only ease up on the load–”
Jonas swore, cutting off his elder son. “Young and strong as they are, they oughtta be able to do a whole lot more than they’ve been doing! There are other slaves on this place who put out more work.”
“Yes, and there are other slaves who’ll be doing this same thing shortly, too,” responded David.
“Not if I make an example of these two,” Jonas growled, sending a heated glance in the direction of the shed.
At that moment drumming hoof beats were heard in the direction of the road, and seconds later two riders came thundering around the corner of the mansion. The Hart men and Web Steele recognized Reed Exley, slave overseer of the neighboring John Ruffin plantation, and one of the Ruffin slaves, a handsome young man named Mandrake.
David Hart mumbled, “The last person we need here right now is Exley.”
Web agreed. As with most people in the Richmond area, he harbored a deep dislike for Exley, who was married to wealthy John Ruffin’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth. Web was engaged to Ruffin’s next-oldest daughter, Abby. While courting her for the past year-anda-half, he had gotten to know Exley quite well…much to his sorrow.
At thirty-one, Reed Exley was three years older than Web. He was short, stocky, blond, and somewhat good-looking; he was also self-centered, greedy, and unprincipled. He had a mean, hair-trigger temper, shifty, ice-blue eyes, and a perpetual cocky smirk. His vile soul was exposed further by his vicious and cruel treatment of the Ruffin slaves. It was because of this treatment that Steele expected an all-out slave rebellion. There had been a few runaways in the past several months, but so far, no actual uprising.
It was Exley’s job to oversee the slaves and to handle the buying and selling of them. Web, who had the same job on his father’s plantation, was kind and compassionate with his slaves. His observation of Exley’s merciless, inhuman handling of the Ruffin slaves had led him to discuss it on one occasion with Abby’s widower father, but it had done no good. John Ruffin had a blind spot when it came to his son-in-law, and because Exley had never abused the slaves before his eyes, he refused to believe it ever happened. Even when Abby and her younger sister, Lynne, told their father of seeing Exley mistreat the slaves, he would not believe it.
Daniel Hart, who was courting Lynne Ruffin, also disliked Reed Exley. When he saw Exley and Mandrake ride up, he noticed that Exley was wearing a sidearm.
“Better get your head down, Reed!” called Jonas. “We’ve got a couple of slaves with their noses out of joint, and they’ve been doing some shooting.”
Exley and Mandrake ran in and hunkered down. “Yeah, I heard it,” said Reed. “I decided to come and see if I could help.” As he spoke, he drew his gun, then looked at Jonas’s bleeding shoulder. “You shot bad?”
“No.Mabel can fix me up once this is over.”
“So what’s going on?” queried Exley.
Jonas gave Exley a brief explanation, naming the two black men who were holding his daughter and son hostage.
Looking around at the others, Exley saw that the only weapon in the bunch was the revolver in Jonas’s hand. “Well, why don’t we get some more guns and rush ‘em?”
“Web’s about to try talking them out,” said Jonas.
Exley gave Web a cold stare. “Talk?” he spat incredulously. “These beasts don’t understand talk!” Then to Jonas, “They both have guns?”
“Where’d they get ’em?”
“I have no idea.”
“I say let’s lay our hands on some more guns and rush ’em.”
“That’s a good way to get Darrel and Melissa killed,” Web said. “Dexter and Orman are desperate. Put your gun away, Reed, and let me handle this.”
“Massa Jonas!” came Dexter’s strained voice. “What’s goin’ on? Why’s Reed Exley here?”
“He just came because he heard the shooting,” Steele answered for Jonas.
“Yeah? Then why’d he bring that black man with him?”
Web knew Mandrake well. He smiled at him, then turned to Exley and said, “That’s a good question. Why did you bring Mandrake along?”
A wicked grin spread over Exley’s face as he set his icy eyes on Mandrake. In that brief moment, Steele saw a subtle and fleeting manifestation of the man’s cruelty. Reed held his hard gaze on Mandrake and replied, “Simple, Webster. When I heard the shots, I figured it could be something like this. Mandrake, here, has shown a little too much starch to suit me. The other slaves sort of look to him as their leader. I suppose it’s because he’s young, full of fire, and has all those muscles. Anyway, I made him come along so if some of Jonas’s beasts were gonna get disciplined for startin’ trouble, he could see first-hand what happens to black boys who revolt against their white masters.”
Trepidation showed on Mandrake’s dark features. Daring not to look Reed Exley in the eye, he drew in a long, gravelly breath, passed a glance at Steele, and looked at the ground.
Suddenly a shot was heard inside the shed. Melissa Hart screamed. A harsh voice blared, “Nobody’s hurt, Massa Jonas! I jus’ shot through the roof! But Orman and I are tired of waitin’ for you to let us go. We want those horses now! If’n we don’t get ‘em, somebody in dis shed is goin’ to get hurt…an’ it ain’t me or Orman!”
“Jonas, you gonna do somethin’?” asked Reed Exley. “Or you just gonna sit here and let them animals kill your kids?”
Jonas licked his lips. “I’ve got to let Web see if he can talk them out. They like Web. Maybe he can do something with them.”
“I doubt it,” snarled Exley. “But so he talks ‘em into lettin’ your kids loose and throwin’ their guns out. What you gonna do then?”
“I don’t know,” said Jonas. “Let’s just cross one bridge at a time here. Most important thing is to get Melissa and Darrel out of there.”
“Well, they oughtta be hanged or shot through the head in front of the rest of your slaves,” grunted Exley. “If you don’t make an example of ‘em, the next time you whip one, you’ll go through this kind of nonsense again.”
“Dexter!” called Steele, unwilling to stretch the ordeal out any longer. “Can we talk?”
Web Steele left his crouch and stood to his full height, exposing his empty hands. The Hart brothers set admiring eyes on him from their low position. Wealthy plantation owner Dudley Steele’s handsome son stood three inches over six feet, with a muscular frame. He had thick, wavy black hair, matching well-trimmed mustache,
medium-length sideburns, and coal-black eyes.
As Web was about to speak, Mabel Hart’s high-pitched voice could be heard from the back porch of the mansion. “Jonas! Do something! They’ll kill our children!”
“We are!” Jonas shouted back. “Just stay calm!”
“Dexter!” called Steele.
“There is nothing to gain by doing harm to Melissa and Darrel. Let them come out, and we’ll talk.”
“Cain’t do that, Massa Web! If’n we let the kids go, Massa Jonas will beat us again! ’Specially now that we done shot ’im. We ain’t gonna have no mo’ of those beatin’s! We ain’t lazy like he say. We works hard. But we cain’t keep up the kind o’ workin’ he’s puttin’ on us.”
“Dat’s right, Massa Web!” came Orman’s voice. “We knows about yo’ slaves. Ain’t none o’ them gets treated like us.”
“Well, I’m sure if you’ll let Mr. Hart’s children loose, he’ll not beat you. His wound is not serious. I’m sure he’ll not punish you for it, and will be more tolerant from now on.”
“We wants to hear him say dat!” shouted Orman.
Steele looked down at Jonas Hart. “Well?”
Jonas’s face flushed and his eyes had fire in them. “Web, I can’t tell those two I’ll be more tolerant! You can’t expect me to just overlook this and tell them all is forgiven!”
“I think you’re going to have to if you don’t want to get those kids hurt…or killed,” replied Steele.
“What’s the matter with tellin’ ’em everything’s all right so they’ll let the kids go…then blast ‘em when they show their faces?” suggested Exley.
Web scowled at him. “You fool, Reed! There are more than thirty men in that crowd of slaves standing out there watching us. If we shoot Dexter and Orman, they just might decide to swarm in here and tear us apart.”
“We got two guns,” parried Exley.
“And how many bullets will you have after blasting Dexter and Orman?” clipped Steele. “Even if you could cut a few of them down, what about the rest? There’d still be enough of them to tear us limb from limb. You’re not using your head, Reed.”
Reed’s temper flared. “They ain’t gonna do no such thing! Even if they started for us, when they saw some of their black pals drop, they’d back off.”
“You think so?”
“I know it.”
Turning to the slave beside Exley, Steele asked, “What about it, Mandrake? Would they back off?”
Mandrake cleared his throat nervously. “Well, Massa Web, I cain’t say fo’ sure. If they’s thinkin’ straight, they’d prob’ly not come rushin’ into a couple of blazin’ guns. But seein’ two of their own shot down after they had been tol’ they was forgiven just might make ‘em crazy-blind mad. If’n that was to happen, wouldn’t be a white person left alive on this place.”
Exley was livid. “Mandrake, you keep outta this! I don’t want to hear another word outta you! You got that?”
Mandrake flicked a fearful glance at Steele, who glared at Exley and snapped, “I asked for his opinion, Reed! You had no right to jump him. Why do you have to be such an idiot?”
Exley bristled. His hot glare met Steele’s. The message passed between them–a mute understanding of their mutual dislike.
Reed’s teeth clamped together as he hissed, “I resent bein’ called an idiot!”
“Then quit acting like one.”
Steele looked down at Jonas and said, “Are you going to tell Dexter and Orman they’re forgiven, and that you’ll be more tolerant from now on?”
“Better do it, Pa,” put in David. “Something’s going to happen in that shed pretty soon if you don’t.”
Jonas pulled the bloody hand away from his wound and saw that the bleeding had stopped. Taking off his hat and throwing it angrily on the ground, he said in a hoarse half-whisper, “I can’t let those two get away with this! If I do, others will be encouraged to rebel. I’ll do anything to get Darrel and Melissa out of there safely, but after that, there has to be severe punishment.”
“More beatings?” asked Steele.
“Yes! More beatings! They’re not going to get away with this!”
“Pa,” said David, “if you hadn’t beaten them in the first place, we wouldn’t be having this problem now. If you make it sound like everything is forgiven just to free Darrel and Melissa, then whip Dexter and Orman, that will really incite a rebellion. The best thing is for you to stand up right now and talk to them. Admit that you’ve been working them too hard, and that you were wrong to belt-whip them. You take any other course, and there’ll be disaster.”
Mabel’s high-pitched voice pierced the air. “Jonas! What are you doing? Why are you taking so long?”
“I’m working on it!” Jonas shouted toward the house.
“Well, I say we rush ’em,” interjected Reed. “Those black dogs deserve to die.”
Mandrake licked his lips as anger welled up within him, but he did not set eyes on Exley.
“You’re talking like an idiot again, Reed!” growled Steele. “You couldn’t rush them fast enough to save those kids’ lives.”
“We’ll do it my way,” said Jonas. “I’ll tell them they’re forgiven. When Darrel and Melissa are safe and those beasts have thrown down their guns, we’ll tie them to a tree and put the fear of God into them.”
“Then I want no part in this,” said Web, turning to walk away. He froze when another gunshot came from the shed.
Melissa’s scream curdled the air and Mabel darted off the porch toward the shed, emitting a wordless wail. Darrel’s voice was heard above his sister’s scream, calling for his father to help them.
Web intercepted Mabel and guided her toward her husband and older sons hunkered behind the wagon.
David saw his wife coming a few steps behind Mabel, and shouted, “Chloe! Go back!”
Chloe Hart was frightened and did not heed David’s command. Reaching the wagon, she dropped to her knees and threw herself into his arms, sobbing.
Dexter’s desperate voice rang out from inside the shed, “Time’s up! We want those horses right now!”
Jonas’s ragged emotions flooded to the surface. “Dexter,” he bawled, “I want my children out of there this instant!”
“No!” came the defiant reply. “You give us the horses, and like we already tol’ you, we’ll let Darrel and Melissa go when we think we’re far enough away!”
“You’d never get far enough away!” boomed Hart. “You can’t pull this kind of stuff on me and get away with it! You’re not getting any horses! Now give it up! Let those kids out of there!”
“No! They’re gonna get hurt if you don’ do as we say!”
Web said, “Jonas, you’ve got to apologize for beating them and tell them you’ll lighten their work load.”
“I don’t have to do any such thing.”
Another plea came from Darrel, begging his father to help them.
“Jonas!” wailed Mabel. “What is wrong with you? Don’t you care what happens to your children?”
“Of course I care, but nobody does this to Jonas Hart. They’re not going to get away with it!”
David looked his father in the eye and said heatedly, “Pa, your pride is going to get Darrel and Melissa killed! Dexter and Orman trust Web. Why don’t you just tell them you’ll set them free right now, and let them ride out of here in Web’s buggy with him? After this episode, they’ll never be worth their salt around here any more. Let them go. We can get along without them.”
“I paid good money for those two, David!” snapped Jonas. “They’re not getting out of here! They’re going to get what’s coming to them!”
“I still say we rush ’em!” blurted Reed.
Ignoring Exley, Jonas looked toward the open window of the shed and bellowed, “Dexter! Orman! If you harm a hair of either one of my kids, you’ll die! I’ll kill you myself…personally!”
“We’d rather die than have to live like we’ve been livin’!” came Dexter’s reply. “We’ve talked it over, Massa Jonas. If ’n you don’t let us ride out of here with Darrel and Melissa like we tol’ you, den yo’ gonna have to come in after us. We’ll die, but so will yo’ chillun!”
Mandrake glanced cautiously toward Reed, then said to Hart, “Massa Jonas, they means what they’s sayin’. B’lieve me. They is desperate, and they’s gonna do what they’s sayin’ if ’n you don’ let ‘em go.”
Reed Exley cursed and slapped Mandrake’s face. “You shut up!” he blared. “I said I didn’t want to hear another word outta you!”
Mandrake’s head whipped sideways from the blow. He took a step back, placing a hand to his smarting cheek.
Web wanted to knock Exley rolling, but the situation at the shed was about to explode. He could tell by the stubborn set to Jonas’s jaw that the man was not going to give in. Mabel was whimpering, trembling with fear, and appeared on the verge of collapse. Glancing at the slaves gathered by the cabins, Web saw them watching intently and talking among themselves. Something had to be done, and it had to be done quickly.
Turning to Hart, he said, “Jonas, will you sell Dexter and Orman to me? Right now?”
“What? Why would you want to buy black devils like them?”
“David’s right. After what’s happened here today, neither of them will be worth their salt around this place any more. I know Dexter’s not married, and I assume Orman isn’t either.”
“I’ll give you a thousand apiece. ”
“A thousand?” Jonas gasped. “Web, you know those two will bring a good eighteen hundred apiece at an auction.”
“This isn’t an auction, and you’ve got the lives of a son and daughter at stake. Time’s running out. Just agree and I’ll take them off your hands this minute. I’ll be back with a check to cover payment within an hour.”
Jonas rubbed his chin, pondering the offer.
David spoke up. “Pa, what are you waiting for? Tell the man he’s got a deal!”
Jonas threw a scornful look at his oldest son, then said to Steele, “All right, Web. They’re yours for a thousand apiece. Take them and get them out of my sight.”
Mabel sobbed a sigh of relief.
“Dexter! Orman!” called Steele.
“Do you trust me?”
“We does,” said Dexter.
“Then you’ll believe me when I tell you I’ve just made a deal with Jonas. He’s going to sell both of you to me right here and now.”
“He is? You mean we can ride outta here with you and be yo’ slaves from now on?”
“That’s right. I can’t give him a check to pay for you until I get back home. He’ll have to draw up the papers while I’m gone, and we’ll close the deal later this afternoon. But you will have to conduct yourselves from this moment on as if you are my slaves. Do you understand?”
“Yassuh!” replied Dexter.
“Suits me jus’ fine!” came Orman’s lilting voice.
“All right. Now, how many guns do you have in there?”
“Two, Massa Web.”
“You wouldn’t lie to me?”
“All right, throw them both out the window.”
There was a brief pause, then the two revolvers sailed out the open window.
“Oh, God bless you, Web!” Mabel said with a quaking voice.
Steele gave her a compassionate smile, then called toward the shed, “Fine! Now, open the door and let Darrel and Melissa come out.”
The shed door swung open, and neither slave could be seen as first Melissa then her younger brother emerged. Sobbing, Mabel ran toward them and Jonas followed. Daniel was next, with David and Chloe behind him. Mary Ann had left the porch and was close by. She quickly joined the group.
Exley breathed a curse and mumbled something under his breath. Mandrake looked on with interest.
The faces of the two slaves were barely visible at the window as they observed the family embracing Darrel and Melissa. When Jonas was sure they were unhurt, he returned to Web’s side. Web waited until the tight-knit group had passed the overturned wagon on its way to the mansion, then said, “All right, boys. I want you to come out now.”
“If’n we belongs to you now, then Massa Jonas cain’t hurt us, right?”
“Right. Tell them, Jonas.”
Hart shuddered and clenched his jaw, looking hard at Steele.
“You backing out now?” Steele half-whispered.
“I’d like to,” came the heated reply, also in a half-whisper.
“You’re a man of your word, Jonas. Answer Dexter’s question.”
Looking toward the dark faces at the window of the shed, Jonas said with sand in his voice, “Web and I have each other’s word on the sale. I’m not going to harm his slaves.”
“Come on,” said Steele. “I’ll take you to my father’s plantation.”
With fear evident in their faces, Dexter and Orman emerged slowly from the shed and walked cautiously toward the overturned wagon.
Jonas gripped his wounded shoulder once more and set burning eyes on the slaves. “You two better thank your lucky stars Web Steele happened along. Otherwise, you’d have gotten a beating like you’ve never seen in your worst nightmares. And if you had harmed my children, you’d have died at the end of a rope!”
“They still oughtta be strung up, Jonas!” thundered Reed Exley. “These two have more than over-stepped their bounds, and the way I see it, they deserve to die! When word gets out that they pulled this on you, there’ll be more incidents just like it all over this county! Letting them get by with it isn’t right. They need to pay for what they’ve done!” Even as he spoke, Exley whipped out his revolver, swung it on the slaves, and fired twice.