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Sebastian Cane was tired after a long day in the hot sun. One arm resting on the mantle, one leg raised and placed on the fender, he stared down into the embers of the dying fire. Like everything else in his life these days, it was depressing. He had spent his life on a cane plantation, taking control when his father was no longer able, confident he knew what it took to run the venture. As his business had expanded, merging with neighboring plantations to create one of the largest concerns in Louisiana, he had even needed to employ a plantation manager to help him. Now, less than two years later, he realized just how different his life was, actually working in the fields instead of sitting astride a horse issuing instructions.
Sebastian turned at the slight cough behind him, knowing it could only come from Joseph. The one other person it might once have been no longer worked in the house. Joseph's one-time assistant, the young slave Nicodemus, now had other duties. There were so few younger slaves left on the plantation that Nicodemus helped out wherever he could, leaving only Joseph and Sarah working in the house. Sarah rarely left her domain of the kitchen, though Joseph had insisted in helping out in the vegetable gardens now, something that would have been below the senior house servant not so long ago. It used to amuse Sebastian that even the slaves had their own version of hierarchy; now it only made him sad.
"Yes, Joseph?" Sebastian queried wearily.
"Nicodemus has just returned from the western field, sir. He told me that he saw Walter Jenkins riding past earlier and asked him if there was any news of mail from up north."
Sebastianlooked up sharply at that. "And?" he snapped.
"Sorry, sir. It seems there is very little getting through again." Joseph spoke calmly but he watched his master closely. "I'm sure you will hear from Mr. Van Leyden one of these days soon, sir."
Recognizing Joseph's conciliatory tone following his sharp retort, Sebastian knew he hadn't been the same since Pieter had left, and Joseph was the one person who would most notice it--and have to cope with it.
Sebastian had wondered for some time exactly what Joseph thought of his friendship with Pieter. Joseph would have recognized how much happier and more relaxed Sebastian had been in Pieter's company, more like he used to be before his wife, Elisa, had died. But, would he have understood just what Pieter meant to Sebastian? Joseph had always been loyal to him, something Sebastian had never questioned until Pieter arrived, but, in more recent times, he wondered why the slave seemed to care for him. He had done nothing to earn it. Was it real or merely an excellent act?
Sebastian also knew that Joseph had liked and respected Pieter ever since he came to take up the position of plantation manager. Pieter was a kind, considerate man whose character soon won over the old slave. How would he view his master, though, if he ever discovered the truth of just how close he and Pieter really were? They had always been as circumspect as possible, but sometimes Sebastian thought Joseph would have to be blind not to see how happy they made each other and how terribly Sebastian missed his lover.
"Thank you, Joseph," Sebastian said sadly, belatedly realizing the slave was still waiting, before he turned back to stare into the fire that was now almost out.
"Would you like the fire building up, Mr. Cane?" Joseph queried.
"What? Oh, no, that's not necessary. I will go up to bed soon. Thank you, Joseph."
"Yes, sir. Good night."
Sebastian was aware that Joseph gave him a long, appraising look as he closed the salon door quietly. The slave was probably wondering what his master saw when he looked into those flickering flames.
In fact, Sebastian wasn't really seeing the fire at all. In his mind's eye, he was seeing the look in his lover's eyes as he had left that last morning. Sebastian had just pressed his monogrammed silver button into his hand. Though Pieter hadn't looked at what he held, the expression in his eyes told Sebastian that he knew exactly what he had been given. A message received and understood. It was precisely the same button that Pieter had returned to Sebastian shortly after he arrived at the plantation. Pieter had later confessed he'd kept it as the only link he had to the stranger he'd been so intrigued by, after that brief meeting in the rain of Amsterdam.
Sebastian wanted Pieter to bring the keepsake back to him again, wanted Pieter to come home to him. Soon, please, dear Lord. I miss him so much.
It had been months now since Sebastian had even heard from Piet. At first, after Pieter had traveled north some fifteen months ago, Sebastian had received letters regularly, but after the war started in April of last year, the correspondence had become less frequent. By June of 1861, the Union had called a halt to its postal service to the Confederate States. However, the Confederacy was prepared for this, and had already instituted its own service. Pieter's letters became more infrequent until they had finally petered out. Sebastian repeatedly attempted to send mail to New York via the new Confederate postal system, to the last address he had for Pieter. He had no idea if it had ever reached him, however, for Sebastian never got a reply. It was more than possible that Pieter was no longer at that address. The last letter had mentioned that Pieter had finally decided to join the Union army, and Sebastian refused to think to what that could lead.
Sighing, Sebastian turned his back on the dying fire and headed toward the staircase and his lonely bed, his mind still churning with disturbing thoughts.
Things had changed a lot in Louisiana in the long months since Pieter had left. Many of Cane's neighbors had become more belligerent in their attitude, becoming more determined to proceed with forming their own government, knowing very well they were inviting war with the authorities in the North. It was surprising how many of them didn't seem to understand that war only brought destruction, not the simple clean break they imagined. At first perhaps they could be forgiven for their confidence because when the fighting finally began, started by the forces of the newly formed Confederacy as they fired on Fort Sumter, they eventually forced its surrender.
The first few months only added to the fervor for the war among the Southern folk who ran the neighboring plantations along the Mississippi's River Road. The Confederate States' army won the early battles, but, gradually things began to change as the North won time after time. The South began to realize it wasn't going to be a swift victory after all.
The situation began to hit home when the Union navy blockaded the mouth of the Mississippi River at New Orleans. The action systematically destroyed the two forts guarding the entrance to the bay, thereby besieging the city. Within days, New Orleans itself had fallen and the North had a foothold in the South, trapping the Confederacy between two fronts. The over-riding confidence shown by the South dissolved in the unexpected defeat, and the overwhelming embarrassment of the loss of its largest city without even a shot being fired in its environs. By the first of May, 1862, New Orleans was an occupied city.
With the loss of that early confidence, attitudes changed. The fighting was now literally on their doorstep, and over the next few months there were constant battles, particularly along both sides of the Mississippi River. Many of them were little more than skirmishes as the Confederate forces tried to make headway against the Union forces, who used boats to keep the river clear from New Orleans up to Baton Rouge, the state capital.
It was only a short while before the loss of New Orleans that the Confederacy had introduced conscription for men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. Sebastian had only just turned thirty-five a few weeks earlier, but even without that fact, he was exempt from the draft as the conscript did not apply to those whose work was considered essential to the war. Plantation owners and their workforce came under such exclusion if they chose to exercise it. Some did and others volunteered anyway.
Gradually, Sebastian lost all but one of his overseers, as only Grover remained while the others left to swell the Confederate ranks. They were eager to show the Union that the South was not to be trifled with. Even a couple of his slaves risked much to escape with the intent of heading north, hoping to try and fight against the Confederacy.
One of the overseers, Wheeler, had reported to Sebastian after overhearing a conversation between a handful of slaves. He asked for permission to flog two of them he had heard discussing the possibility of escape. They hoped to go north, believing they would be free then, even be able to fight against those who had enslaved them. Ever since Van Leyden had taken over as plantation manager, the overseers were no longer allowed to punish the slaves without his consent, much to their annoyance. Sebastian had backed the decision and continued the practice after Piet had left. When he'd listened to the overseer's opinion, Sebastian turned down his request. Wheeler was vociferous in his disgust at Cane for refusing to allow him to whip the two slaves.
"I see nothing wrong in a man wishing for his freedom," Sebastian snapped, quieting the man with the force of his will. "A man's thoughts and desires can't be chained, Wheeler; you would do well to remember that."
"They were talking to others, sir, causing unrest," Wheeler tried again. "You know how the darkies need a strong hand to control them, sir. It doesn't do to allow them to spread such ideas."
"I doubt very much that they were saying things the others hadn't already thought themselves, but I will speak to them," Sebastian added, dismissing him. Sebastian had long since accepted that Pieter had influenced his thinking more than either of them had realized. It wasn't until after he was gone and Sebastian took up the reins again that he saw how much his understanding had evolved. Before Pieter had come to work for him, Sebastian left the overseers to control the slaves as they saw fit, learning to his cost that some of them overstepped the mark considerably. It was through Pieter's ex-slave and one-time lover that Sebastian discovered the cruelty of his Head Overseer; the man had not only whipped Joss but had repeatedly raped the young slave. Sebastian would never again abrogate his responsibility for those under his care.
In any event, Sebastian never got the opportunity to speak to the two slaves. The men managed to run away that night.
Wheeler attempted to remonstrate with him the next morning, pointing out that he had been right and Sebastian had been wrong, but all Cane said was, "Can you blame them? What would you have done in their place?"
Wheeler stared at him as if he was crazy. "That's it!" the overseer declared, incensed. "This place has been going downhill ever since Sharston left. That damn Dutchman poisoned you. I'm leaving! Gonna go where I can do some real good, get things back the way they should be. Show the niggers their place in this world." With that, he stalked away, another overseer joining him. Heads close together, the two men spoke, glancing back only once in Cane's direction. They were the first of Sebastian's white workers to leave and join the Confederate Army, but they weren't the last.
Sebastian had thoughtfully considered the matter of joining the Confederate Army himself. He did not really wish to fight for the continuation of slavery, though the Confederacy was careful to deny it was the most important cause for the rebellion. However, he had another, more pressing reason for wanting to stay at Morning Star. Once he left his plantation, the remaining slaves would have little protection. Most of his overseers had already left. True, it could also result in any slave who was prepared to take the risk making a run for freedom. But that meant they could just as easily be taken by any other slave owner who found them, or even by the army who demanded slaves as laborers when they wanted. Sebastian felt he owed his slaves loyalty and whatever protection he could afford them.
It was almost a shock to understand that it was only his responsibility to his slaves, those people he had kept in bondage all his life--all their lives--that kept him tied to his home. His concern had always been for the plantation, for his family's inheritance, but that meant little to him now.
His priority was no longer bricks and mortar or the land he worked. Only one thing really mattered to him now: Pieter, and he was far away and presently out of reach. No wonder Sebastian felt his life was so empty now. Everything had changed and he hadn't even realized it until it was too late. He should never have allowed Pieter to go north without him.
Then he remembered he didn't only have himself to think of; it was his responsibility to look after the men and women that slavery had made reliant on him. By omission, he had made those people vulnerable and he couldn't desert them now. He had to find a way to provide for them, for as long as he could. The more time passed, the more important it became for him to stay, when all he wanted to do was to ride north as fast as he could.