Fern Glen, Chapter 7 of Lee A. Wood s Novel, Fero

Copyrite `95.

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A novel

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Chapter Seven

Lady slave
Author's note: Picture, courtesy of `CBBC NEWSROUND'

* FERN GLEN 1859 *

The Portuguese slaver was poorly crewed. The reputation of the Captain, as a cruel and harsh master, made it difficult for him to hire experienced sailors. His crew was smaller than it should be, for the size of the vessel, and most of the members were inexperienced.

Because he was shorthanded the Captain couldn't spare the guards to bring his cargo above decks for airings as other slavers would do. Not that he would have done so even if he had had a full compliment of crew.

He wasn't a good businessman and didn't worry what condition his cargo was in when he reached his destination. His only concern was keeping his costs down in route. Consequently he had as many niggers as possible packed into the holds.

The only prisoners that ever came on deck, male and female, were those chosen by the Captain, or one of his crew, for an evening's, or afternoon's, entertainment.

Many of these were never returned to the hold and many of those who were, died of their injuries sustained while being abused by their captors.

Females, those not kept for entertaining on the two Portuguese ships, were housed in the former German slaver while the male cargo was kept in the two Portuguese ships. Tier after tier of human cargo, stacked side by side, like firewood. With little room to do more than roll over they were forced to void their bladders and bowels where they lay, covering themselves and their neighbours with excrement.

There was little fresh air to breath as the Captain kept the holds closed to keep the stench below decks. Occasionally, when they had nothing else to do, the crew would form a bucket brigade and ineffectually throw pails of water at the tiers, doing little more than dampening a few heads or feet.

Every day, weather permitting, one bowl of gruel and one bowl of water was issued to each prisoner. Sailors, with rags tied over their noses, would use whips to see that none of the prisoners tried to steal another's portion.

As the weeks stretched into months the sailors would routinely clear the dead from the holds, before they brought around the food and water, thusly saving themselves from cooking, or carrying, food that wouldn't be issued.

When the slaver finally reached Jamaica the ship could be smelled for miles down wind and the Captain had lost nearly half of his cargo. Stopping only long enough to take on fresh water, none of the auctioneers would go near the stench of his ships let alone consider buying his cargo, the slaver sailed with the tide.

Taking his time, slipping through the islands, the Captain waited for a stormy night, then slipped across the Gulf of Mexico. Avoiding all the ships that would have stolen his cargo, he made port in Mobile.

Of all the auctioneers only one would deal with the Portuguese. He was experienced with this type of captain and was prepared to take a poor cargo, sight unseen, at a reduced price.

In the dark of the night, so that no one could see the poor quality of the merchandise, the cargo was unloaded.

Covered with lice and soars, prickled with slivers from the rough boards they had been lying on, legs weak from weeks of disuse, the prisoners were beaten, pummelled, and driven up the ladders to the deck.

As they crossed the gangplank to the shore they were forced to discard any remaining clothing or other adornments and drop the last of their worldly possessions into the water. Too weak to object, they stumbled ashore.

Naked, the file of the walking dead trudged across the wharf and, along a trail, to a corral, beside a creek. Here their new owner, knowing how dehydrated they were, issued them each a small portion of water. Throughout the night he issued them larger portions until by noon the next day they were able to drink their fill without getting sick.

In the hot afternoon sun small groups were led out of the compound and fed a small bowl of gruel. Then the prisoners were led to a creek where they were given bars of lye soap and allowed to scrub away the weeks of accumulated filth.

As they emerged from the cool water the men were issued clean trousers and the women were given clean dresses, before being escorted to the auction where they were housed in a large barn with fresh straw to sleep on. Here they were fed again. Over a period of days, their food ration gradually increased in size and quality.

When auction day finally arrived the, former, starving scarecrows were presentable to the buying public. Although still not the best of health their skin shone from the application of oils, muscles flexed from a series of exercises, and the new slaves understood basic commands in English. Consequently the auctioneer reaped a fair profit for his efforts.

Although Tarka had tried to protest that he was white he soon learned that niggers were more highly valued than Irishman in Alabama. He also learned that it was not uncommon for niggers to be almost white because of cross breeding and that no nigger could be trusted to tell the truth.

Taking all this into account, plus the fact that the auctioneer had paid good coin for him, he was not going to become a free man just because he had white skin and red hair.

In fact the auctioneer hoped to get a higher price for him because of the red hair.

As it happened the red hair was detrimental to the selling price and Tarka sold for less than the other slaves because the buyers didn't want a nigger that was tainted with Irish blood.

Fighting the current, the barges moved away from the quay into the mouth of the Alabama River. The barge Captain had timed his departure for the end of the slack tide. Now, as they reached the middle of the river, the tide began to flow in, helping the barges to move against the current of the river. Slowly the barges began to move upstream, leaving behind the bustle of the city.

At first, the banks of the river were covered with nice houses, eventually deteriorating to dilapidated shacks. Many of them just log floats with crude huts built on them. These, in turn, gave way, to forests, solid green on the East bank.

The West bank was interspersed with clearings and fields with the occasional large house near the road. Although, sometimes on the water, the houses were usually on the West side of the road as the road generally hugged the bank of the river.

Mr. Hammon climbed atop one of his new wagons and called for his new slaves to gather about. A few of the niggers, those who had been slaves before, shambled over to the wagon. Cracking his whip, a white man, soon had everyone gathered around the wagon.

Mr. Hammon pointed at Tarka and a nigger on the other barge, "Both of you can understand English so I want you to tell your people what I say. You are new to this country and you are new to me." Mr. Hammon pointed at the nigger on the other barge. Unseen by Tarka, he could be heard speaking in his own language to his people. When Mr. Hammon looked his way Tarka spoke to his adopted family in the Ewe language.

Mr. Hammon waited until Tarka finished and then said, "You are now my property. I have paid good money for you and I expect to get good return on my investment."

He paused while his words were translated. "If you look to the fields beside the river you will see other niggers. That is mainly the type of work that you will do, planting, weeding, picking. I have several large fields where we grow corn, peanuts, and cotton. You will also have smaller fields where you will grow vegetables for the kitchen in the big house, and for yore selves."

"You bigger and stronger niggers will work in the forest, cutting trees and hauling logs, or in the sawmill making lumber. You women will work in the kitchens cooking for the men. The better looking of you women will be joined with the stronger of the men. You will raise me good looking piccaninnies that I can sell at the auction."

"We live a very comfortable life at our Plantation called Fern Glen. If you work hard and behave yore selves you will be treated kindly and fed well. If you cause any trouble, Mr. Hammon looked directly at Tarka, you will be whipped."

A loud crack made them all turn to look at the man wielding the bull whip. Again he cracked the whip, this time close over their heads causing them all to duck.

"This is Beauregard Steveston," Mr. Hammon continued, "he is my overseer and you will address him as Master Beau. If you cause any trouble you will feel that whip across your back."

Again he looked directly at Tarka, "I bought you for one reason, because the auctioneer said you spoke the language and I need you to teach my new slaves English. I don't trust white niggers, especially ones with red hair."

"If I have any trouble from you I'll have Beau strip the hide off your back with his whip." Mr. Hammon nodded at Beau.

Tarka screamed, in pain, and shock, as the whip landed across his shoulders, the tip leaving a red welt across his chest and along his thigh. The suddenness of the blow drove Tarka to his knees and as he rose, and turned, he saw Beau snaking the whip ready for another strike.

"That is just a sample, a light touch. Tell your people that they need never experience that as long as they do as they are told." With that Mr. Hammon climbed into the back of the wagon where a large black woman was setting out a meal for him and Mrs. Hammon.

During the next four days Tarka tasted the whip three more times. The overseer was a sadist but he avoided marking the niggers as they had resale value.

Irishmen on the other hand had no resale value so Beau used any excuse to set an example for the rest of the slaves.

`Tarka had seen Okoni on the women's barge and had waved at her. This had brought a welt across his back that broke the skin and the admonition that there would be no fraternizing with the women.

Tarka had learned, during a short conversation with Tija, that Ogbuji had survived and was near the front of the barge.

Tarka told Tija that he had seen Okoni and Kuti but not Wiwa. He didn't say that he suspected the older woman wasn't able to endure the trip across the Atlantic.

Tija said that he hadn't seen Olandipo or any children. Tarka didn't know how to tell him what had happened to his King. Instead he replied, "When we were being sold I saw Beko being sold to another buyer."

"I saw him in the ship every day." Tija snarled, "he was not far from me but too far for me to reach. If I could have I would have killed him with my bare hands."

"It is better that he lives. Let him endure the hell that he has bestowed on the rest of us"

"I made it hell for him on the ship. I told the ones near him what he had done. They spent the rest of the trip kicking him and spilling his food."

"Let us hope that he gets a mean master and feels the whip every day."

Despite the pain the whip caused the only thing that saved Beau from going overboard with a broken neck was the chain around Tarka's ankle. The look in his eyes frightened Beau and earned Tarka a lash across his chest which knocked him down, where he was wise enough to stay even if Tija hadn't held him back.

"Don't you be glaring at me, nigger," Beau snarled, "and don't you be talking to the other niggers unless me or Mr. Hammon tells you to say something."

Within a few days Tarka developed a sixth sense that let him know whenever he could be seen or heard by the overseer. And if he could be seen or heard Tarka knew just where the man was.

During such periods of being observed Tarka copied the ways of the other slaves, neither moving too fast or too slow. And though his body might be slow his mind would be racing.

Over the next few years, in his mind, he killed Beauregard Steveston many times, but never quickly. It was always different and always slow and painful,.

The rest of the trip up river was spent in silence, as Tarka avoided the others, except when Mr. Hammon had him translate instructions. During the day Mr. Hammon would move through the assemblage deciding where each nigger would work. Tarka would have to describe the job and give instructions to the new slave.

Well upstream from Mobile the barges, one at a time, pulled into the landing at Fern Glen. The barge with the males was docked first so that they could help to unload the others. When all was ashore the males were headed towards the plantation proper while the females were loaded into the wagons.

When the wagons passed, Tarka looked up and with a slight nod of his head acknowledged Okoni's smile. It was the closest he had been to his wife in many weeks.

By the time the chained workers reached the big house the women had been unloaded and sent to their quarters. Tija and the males who would work around the house and the barns were herded off to their quarters.

The workers were loaded into the wagons. Ogbuji and several others went West towards the cotton fields while Tarka and the rest went North towards the forests and the sawmill.

Tucked away in the forest, the sawmill and the woods crew were a community unto themselves. They had their own kitchen, sleeping quarters, stables, and church.

Mrs. Hammon was a devout Anglican and insisted that all the animals, of the two legged variety, be given the opportunity to meet God, even if they didn't have souls like humans.

Tarka's new overseer, Adam, was not as ruthless as Beau. He didn't have to be. Upon arrival at the sawmill he had Tarka explain to his fellow slaves that they were free to leave anytime they wished. There were no fences. However they were surrounded by forest which had no end and were permeated by swamps. Many niggers had tried to escape but none had made it. They either drowned in the swamps or were eaten by ferocious beasts.

The only way out was the way they had come in and they had all seen Beau, and his whip, who lived along the road.

Neither did they have to work. They could sit around all day. However the kitchen was only open to those who produced during the day. And the amount of food they were given was in proportion to the amount of work produced. If one person slacked off they would all be deprived of their sustenance.

Following this lecture Adam had the men line up at the blacksmith shop to have their shackles removed. After which they were assigned to quarters and allowed to rest for the remainder of the day.

By the time the last of the niggers had been freed from his leg irons the cook was ringing the dinner gong.

The next day the new niggers were assigned their jobs. Tarka was taken to the edge of the clearing and taught how to fell trees. The land, in an ever widening circle, was being cleared and the trees were being fed into the sawmill.

Tarka found the days passing slowly. They reminded him of days on ship with the navy when there was no wind and nothing for the crew to do except pretend to keep busy. Tarka would spend most of his time trying to protect his virginity from the ever persistent Patch.

Here on the edge of the clearing Tarka idled away the days cutting down trees, trimming off the branches, and cutting off the top. The tree, now called a log, would be skidded to the mill by horses.

After toping the tree Tarka would wrap a chain around the butt, or wide, end of the log and relax until the wrangler arrived with his team of two draught horses. Tarka would fasten the chain to the draw bar behind the horses then step out of the way until the log was on its way down the skid road, then he would start on the next tree.

The speed of his work was set by the time it took for the horses to go to the mill and back. As long as he had a log ready for the horses, upon their return, there was no need to work any faster. They averaged about three logs a day.

Each day the supply wagon would come from the main plantation with the days supply of fresh meat and vegetables. The cook was as good at his craft as any that Tarka had met aboard ship and the crew ate well.

Breakfast was served with the rising of the sun and supper was served at sunset. There was food in a bucket for each man to take with him for his noon day meal.

Life was good. Occasionally Tarka could sense Beau hiding in the bushes watching him so he worked a little more conscientiously for a while until he knew he was unobserved again and then he would slack off.

It was at such times that his thoughts turned heavily to the main plantation and his wife. He had had no word of her since coming to the logging camp.

Occasionally the driver of the supply wagon would pass on some information as to the comings and goings about the plantation but it was just information in general and nothing specific about any one individual.

He had no idea where Okoni was working or if she was even still alive.

The following summer, after the Hammons returned from the auction in Mobile, new slaves were brought to work at the mill. Tarka taught a new nigger how to fell trees and in turn was taught by the wrangler how to work the horses.

Mr. Hammon wanted to increase the production of the mill and with the tree line moving further from the mill it was taking longer for the horses to make a round trip so he was increasing the number of horses.

Tarka had never had anything to do with horses and he was eager to learn. As well as learning to control the horses, Tarka also learned how to feed and care for them.

His days were busier now and also shorter as he didn't leave the stables until daylight and was usually back before dark.

It was shortly after he had his own team to work with that he was late one night. It was nearly dark when he got to the edge of the clearing and after hitching the turn or log to the draw bar the feller started walking ahead. Tarka told him he would catch up after he stopped in the trees for a few minutes.

Back in the trees, after relieving himself, Tarka heard something. At first he thought it was Beau, watching him, but his hackles weren't raised.

Slowly he crept South and within a short distance came to the edge of the trees. Unnoticed by Tarka the logging had almost removed the forest between the sawmill and the cotton fields.

Before him, under the light of a quarter moon were the cotton fields they had passed through on the way to the mill from the plantation house. Tarka could just make out the pickers climbing onto the wagons for a ride back to their cribs.

Hastily Tarka ran back to his horses and urged them on to the mill, his mind racing with all kinds of forbidden thoughts.

The next night, with careful timing, Tarka finished his last turn and had the horses bedded down by dark. Pretending to go for an evening stroll he wandered towards the mill and then, as soon as he was sure no one was watching, doubled back through the trees.

Within a few minutes he was at the cotton field. Feeling sure that it was safe to walk around the edge, without encountering any swamp, Tarka soon found the cribs of the pickers. It took several nights of reconnoitering before he finally spotted Ogbuji and learned which crib he was staying in.

Tarka made more and more pretences to go into the woods in the daytime and spy out the land. Trying to find a shorter route through the woods without encountering any swamp and without arousing any suspicions as to his activities.

Weeks went by during which he made a few more nightly forays before he was able to catch Ogbuji alone in the trees behind his crib. After nearly scaring his brother-in-law out of his wits the two held a whispered reunion.

At first, Ogbuji had managed to sneak away the odd night to visit Kuti but it was hard for her to get away as she worked in the kitchen of the big house. Since then, a year ago, Ogbuji had been assigned a new mate and now had a healthy child.

Ogbuji knew that Okoni worked in the garden of the big house and had been single till recently. With the arrival of the new slaves she had been given a man to share her crib. She was pregnant.

Okoni had given birth a few months after their arrival in Fern Glen. A baby boy with light skin and red hair. Mrs. Hammon had taken Beau's whip and whipped Okoni and the baby until Beau had stopped her. The baby was dead and Okoni now had bad scars on her breasts.

Slowly Tarka trudged back to his crib. Without even saying goodbye to Ogbuji he dragged his feet through the warm summer soil, not caring if he left a trail, not caring if anyone saw him. All he could picture were his hands tightening the bull whip around Beth Hammon's throat.

Oblivious to his whereabouts he blindly walked into a tree and falling backwards rolled onto his side.

Holding his stomach he curled into a foetal position and silently cried. Large tears rolled across his face until he fell asleep.

Life held no meaning for Tarka, his only goal, his one obsession, to kill, mercilessly, a white woman.

Over the next few months Tarka made forays to the main plantation but the return trip was too far to cover in one night and his travels did little more than teach him the lay of the land.

It wasn't until he managed to persuade Adam that the hostler needed an extra man in the stables, because the horses weren't always ready in the morning, and that he should be that man, because his foot was bothering him and he really couldn't walk the skid road any longer, that he found more time.

He also, after making friends with the hostler, by doing all the drudge work, talked the hostler into teaching him how to ride. The hostler didn't actually know but he did know how to put on a saddle and by watching Adam mount and dismount, Tarka soon got the basic idea.

He could use the story, that he was in the stables, to cover his absence, from his crib, at night. In the daytime he had most of the day to himself. Once the horses were harnessed, in the morning, and the stalls were mucked out there was nothing to do for the rest of the day. He could catch up on his sleep if he had been out the night before or he could make forays through the forest learning the paths through the trees.

Being around the camp all day he was able to make friends with the cook and often would arrange to eat before the horses returned. As soon as he had the horses unharnessed and bedded down he would slip out the back of the stable, with one of the horses, and disappear into the woods.

On nights with clear skies and lots of moonlight he could make good time and circling South between the cotton fields and the gardens he came in from the South of the big house to the cribs for the house servants.

Picketing the horse well out of view of the cribs he stole up through the niggers' garden and observed the comings and goings of the niggers. The big house kept late hours and the niggers worked late which meant that Tarka was often in time to see the slaves returning for a late meal.

Eventually he had an opportunity to talk to Tija and learned that Okoni was now working in the big house with Kuti. The two were used my Mr. Hammon, on many occasions, as foot warmers for his bed and often as an after dinner treat for visitors.

Several nights later the weather participated and Tarka arrived at the rendezvous that Tija had arranged with Okoni. Fearful that she would be caught away from her duties, fearful that her new husband would find out, fearful that Tarka would be displeased with her, Okoni was not in the best of spirits.

Having had no word from Tarka for nearly two years Okoni had not known whether he was alive or dead. Slowly she had grown accustomed to her new life, and her new man, and she was no longer sure of her feelings for Tarka.

The meeting was not as Tarka had dreamed. There was no tearful, and joyful, embrace. There was no sharing of bodies amongst the trees. There was only a frightened young girl with an extended belly.

Fearful, that either might be found by Beau, Okoni didn't stay long. A short conversation and a half hearted kiss left Tarka alone in the dark. His dreams shattered, his hopes dead.

In the string of horses, kept at the sawmill, was an old plug that was of no use but he had been around for a long time and no one knew what to do with him. On warm afternoons when Tarka had nothing else to do he would take Ol' Ben for a leisurely stroll. Sitting on Ol' Ben's back Tarka would contemplate ways of killing the overseer and his employers.

Beau with his penchant for chastising niggers brought his whip back to rip the hide of a worker in the cotton field. He failed to notice that his mistress was behind him. Mrs. Hammon's horse didn't fail to notice the end of the whip strike its ribs.

With a loud scream, and a thunder of hooves, the spirited stallion was gone, in a cloud of dust, before Beau even knew what had happened.

Not really sure of what was taking place he raced for his horse and took off in pursuit of Mrs. Hammon who was hanging on to the edges of her English riding saddle, the horse's reins streaming back beyond her reach.

Tarka, lost in reverie, but ever vigilant, was in the trees just North of the cotton fields. Watching a young nigger gal bent over picking, he was contemplating what men contemplate when offered such a sight. Feeling disloyal to Okoni his thoughts were interrupted by Mrs. Hammon's screams.

Without conscious thought Tarka thudded his heels into Ol' Ben's ribs. With memories of past days of glory, Ol' Ben shot out of the woods directly into the path of the run away stallion.

As the stallion veered around, and started to pass Ol' Ben, Tarka was able to reach out and grab the near side rein. Pulling gently he managed to steer the horse towards the trees. Faced with a wall of forest the horse slowed giving Tarka a chance to stop him.

Standing in front of the horse, talking quietly, the way the hostler had taught him, Tarka was able to sooth the frightened animal. Not that the fact that Tarka hadn't had a bath for over a week and smelled more horse than human didn't help.

When the horse was calm Tarka tied it to a tree and then helped Mrs. Hammon to the ground. He had calmed her as well by the time Beau arrived, but as soon as the overseer alighted from his steed she turned into a wildcat and began to chastise him in words uncommon to a lady.

Discreetly, Tarka slipped behind the stallion and quietly led Ol' Ben into the trees.

Several days later Tarka had a visitor at the stables. Beau alighted from his horse with an aura of friendliness as if he and Tarka had been high school chums, "I've been watching you since you came to Fern Glen. You've developed well under the training I've set out for you. I think it's time your efforts were rewarded."

As if Tarka had any say in the matter, Beau asked, "How would you like to come and work at the main plantation? It just so happens that we are in need of another groom and I have recommended you to Mr. Hammon. I told him what a good job you have been doing here. Mind, you will need to look a little cleaner, bathe more often".

"You will find some new clothes in your new room. The hostler will show you where it is." With a feigned smile on his face he strode back to his horse, and rode quickly away, leaving Tarka stupefied.

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