Read an Excerpt
Winds of the Storm
By Beverly Jenkins
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright ©2006 Beverly Jenkins
All right reserved.
Calhoun County, South Carolina
"But I don't want the job," Zahra Lafayette said, standing on the small front porch of her ramshackle cabin. She let the night's silence resettle before turning to look back over her shoulder at the person who'd made the offer. The intelligent black eyes in the gnarled dark face stared back with a patience Zahra knew all too well. To the world the old woman was known as Harriet Tubman, but to Zahra and others, Harriet was Araminta, the name bestowed upon her at birth. "The Black Butterfly is no more," she added plainly.
"I know, but the president wants you, or no one."
While trying to determine how much of a verbal fight Araminta would put up to convince her to agree, Zahra studied the Carolina night. The moonlit darkness was alive with its nocturnal symphony of frogs, insects and other beasties. Stars were sparkling in the clear skies above. "Under the circumstances, President Grant has quite the nerve asking me for anything."
Seated on an old cane chair, Araminta replied sympathetically, "True, and when I explained the situation to him, he promised he'd look into getting your folks back their land."
Zahra chuckled sarcastically. "He's promised to look into it. What is there to lookinto? My parents helped the Union fight because the Union asked them to, and now, the land that they worked from dawn to dark to pay off is snatched away like a blanket off a child."
"I know, but if you turn Grant down, they'll never see that land."
And therein lay Zahra's dilemma. She had no leverage to make the government give her parents the justice they deserved. In April 1865, her parents, like other freedmen, had been awarded land under General Sherman's Special Order 15. The order had promised each freedmen family forty acres on confiscated Reb land in an area that reached from Charleston, South Carolina, to Florida's St. John's River. The provision had also been included in the congressional act establishing the Freedman's Bureau, but the summer after Lincoln's death, President Johnson forfeited the Blacks' claims and titles.
"We Black folks are looking into the winds of a storm, Zahra," Araminta pointedy out sagely. "That's why the president wants you to find out just how strong those winds are."
"Why choose me?"
"Because you were one of the best dispatches the Union had."
During the war, Araminta had headed up a shadowy network of Black spies the army called Black Dispatches. They'd taken on scouting assignments, helped with reconnaissance and gathered information on everything from the deployment of Confederate troops to the size and makeup of fortifications. Some dispatches had even infiltrated the household staffs of the Confederacy's generals and politicians. Zahra had been one of them.
"Because the experiment Lincoln called Reconstruction almost succeeded there."
"Now it's like cats being thrown into a bag of dogs. Two warring Republican parties. A Republican governor passing Black Code laws like a Democrat. Bribes, scandals. You name it, it's in New Orleans."
"Along with the Union soldiers."
Zahra thought on that for a long moment and on the heated debate being waged across the country over the soldiers' continued presence in Louisiana. "This isn't about the race's plight at all. What Grant's really after is something that will help him decide how soon he can withdraw the soldiers so that he can get Congress and the newspapers off his backside."
"Correct," Araminta replied, then added sarcastically, "but we're just poor, simple colored women. We're only supposed to see what they tell us we see."
"Like telling a blind man he's touching a rabbit when it's really a water moccasin." Zahra shook her head at Grant's lame attempt to pull the wool over her eyes.
Araminta laughed at the analogy. "True. Oh, I've missed having you in my life."
Zahra nodded. "I've thought of you often as well."
They hadn't seen each other since the end of the war. Zahra's family had been spying for the government of the United States since the 1700's, and what she hadn't learned about intelligence gathering from her parents, she had learned from Araminta. Her parents and grandparents taught her to track, to move silently, and to listen to her surroundings, but under Araminta's tutelage, she'd learned ciphers and disguises, how to blend into crowds, and to estimate the size of a Reb brigade. Most importantly though, she'd learned when hardtack, a standard Union food ration during the war, was too wormy to eat.
Araminta said wistfully as if remembering, "Even though the boys were dying all around us, we managed to do some good."
Zahra nodded in agreement, but then added knowingly, "We had some frightening times, though."
Araminta studied her. "I don't remember you being afraid of anything."
"It was '63. Near the Combahee River. We were with Col Montgomery and his Black soldiers."
"Oh, I remember that day. We had a good old time."
Zahra laughed. "I didn't. I'd never been behind enemy lines before, and I was so terrified I thought I would shake to pieces."
Araminta sounded surprised. "You didn't show it."
Zahra thought back. "You led out eight hundred captives that day."
"We led, but that was only because the Rebs were too busy trying to keep Montgomery's boys from burning and stealing everything in sight. Them Rebs didn't have time to fuss with us. The flames in those cotton warehouses were high as the sky."
Zahra remembered the sounds of the pitched battle, the smoke and the smells of burning cotton and wood. The memory faded, and Zahra's mind returned to the present and Grant's offer. "What worries me," she said in a serious tone, "is Grant's people using whatever I find out to pound the last few nails into Reconstruction's coffin. All the Black Codes, the White Leagues, the killings. The soldiers didn't die for this."
"I know, but the race needs to know how strong the winds are, too. So we can prepare."
Excerpted from Winds of the Storm by Beverly Jenkins Copyright ©2006 by Beverly Jenkins. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.