The Last Round
by Carter Fell
Harlen looked anxiously to the west, the sun was arcing towards the horizon, and he really did not want to be on the road after dark. He was fairly sure that the Hunters were not far behind him, and he was afraid that they might already be moving through the forest to his right. Forests were always threatening from the outside, and this one was especially so, its tall trees generated a darkness that hinted of hopes devoured and life lost. On his left was wet ground, where clumps of reeds stood among glistening pools of water, and beyond that was the distant river.
This section of road was pot-holed and bumpy, it did not look like a repair gang had passed along here in years; Harlen was not surprised at that, everywhere was getting more dangerous all the time, especially this region. He had come too far north, he realised that now, he should have stayed in the comfortable south, but it was too late for regrets. There were two options open to him, he could press on to the town, and arrive there after dark, or he could pitch camp. The time was fast approaching when he would have to make a decision, it would take at least an hour to have all the tents erected, a job that would become a chaotic impossibility after dark. Everything depended on how close the Hunters were; he would have to go back and take a look.
Nancy, his mixed-blood driver, was dozing on the seat beside him, swaying and nodding as the cart rattled and rolled on this miserable apology for a road. He nudged her in the ribs with his right elbow, and she jerked awake. ‘Just keep them moving,’ he said, ‘I’m going back a little way.’ Nancy rubbed her eyes, and then took the reins from him. Harlen patted her thighs affectionately, he had owned Nancy for eight years, had used and abused her, had worked her in harness and as a pack animal. In his early days as a trader, he had always been quick to scourge, and her back, her breasts, and her belly bore the scars of his whip; she was now virtually worthless, and that seemed to make her loyal to him. Any other owner would only use her for the most menial of tasks, so her interests lay with Harlen, and she served him very well.
Harlen took his rifle from the platform behind the seat, and dropped off the cart. Standing by the side of the road, he watched his caravan go past. Immediately behind the cart, and attached to it by their neck-chains, were his eight Hunter women; he had spent the last of his money on them, only the previous day. Tall, strong, and magnificent, they would be worth a fortune in any southern market. They all looked contemptuously at Harlen as they passed him, and one of them spat at him, but he was too professional to respond. He knew that such pride would not survive a first flogging, and he was not going to reduce their value by marking them himself; it would be for the purchaser to break them.
After the Hunter women, the baggage slaves plodded past; there were twenty of them in pairs on a chain, each woman carrying a forty-pound load. They were the rubbish of the slave markets, malcontents and runaways, and Harlen had not paid much for any of them; they carried their loads silently, and kept up with the cart, or Nancy sliced their backs. After the baggage slaves came his trading stock, mostly older women from the southern plantations; Harlen had heard that there was a ready market for slaves in the logging towns, and he expected to double his money on them.
Bringing up the rear was his second cart, driven by his niece Kylie; he held up a hand, and she pulled the ponies to a halt. Harlen had agreed to bring her on this trip before he had realised how dangerous it would be. Back on his brother’s farm, she had been a nuisance, forever protesting against her father’s use of slaves; it had been agreed in the family that she should see something of the wider world, to show her that things were how they had to be. The cart was a light two-wheeled thing, pulled by Harlen’s four best ponies; in camp and towns he used it as a runaround.
‘Get off the cart, Kylie.’
Kylie scowled at him from under the broad brim of her hat. ‘Why?’
Harlen had noticed that the people who complained about slavery never had any compunction about eating slave-grown food, or wearing clothes woven by slaves from slave-picked cotton; Kylie was the same, and now she preferred being hauled along by slaves to walking on her own free feet. He sighed. ‘Kylie, if you are disobedient to me one more time, I am going to have Nancy punish you. Get off the cart.’
Still scowling, Kylie dropped the reins, and jumped to the ground. Her skirt billowed, giving Harlen a glimpse of her white thighs; she smoothed the skirt down and sneered at him. ‘Like what you see? I bet you wish you could flog me and rape me, like you do with your poor slaves.’
He resented that, he had never forced himself on a slave, and he could feel his temper rising, but he must not let her see it. ‘I prefer my women with some warmth in them, Kylie, but the Hunters will not be so fussy if they catch you. Now, go and join Nancy up front, and do whatever she tells you.’
Kylie despised Nancy, not because she was a slave, but because she was a loyal slave who carried out the punishments Harlen ordered. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘I’ll go and sit with your whip bitch. But you will not have her beat me, I won’t allow it.’ With that, she turned, and ran after the caravan. Harlen watched her go, and then stepped up onto the two-wheeler; he picked up the driving whip – which Kylie would not touch – and swung the ponies around to face the way they had just come. A crack of the whip over their heads set them moving at a fast walk, he resisted the urge to run them; he would need their strength later on.
After half an hour, Harlen drove his ponies off the road, into an isolated stand of weedy birch saplings. Then he walked another hundreds yards down the road, looking for a good place to conceal himself. The best he could find was a clump of gorse and thistles; he settled down behind it with his rifle, and waited. Kylie was in his head, although he knew that he should not let her get to him. In the city, Harlen had often heard people complain about the cruelty of slavery; they were talking crap, slaves only ever worked to keep the whip off their backs. The whining bastards should try it out here, working slaves on the road. What was he supposed to do, let them sit down and rest when they felt like it? No, the world needed slaves, and slaves needed the lash. And that insolent cow Kylie, he would definitely have Nancy give her a strapping; she could not be cut up, his brother would never forgive him, but she would benefit from being made to yelp a bit.
Far down the road, the Hunters came into view, and Harlen felt that hollow sensation in his stomach. He always got that feeling when there was danger, or when he had just ordered a flogging, he could not figure out the connection. He reached for the pouch that hung on a cord around his neck; it contained his ammunition, just five rounds. Pulling a shell from the pouch he examined it briefly; there were stress lines around the base of the case, it had been fired and reloaded too many times. This did not present a direct danger to Harlen, the risk was that the case would split in the chamber; the rim would than come clear with the extractor, leaving the rest of the brass jammed in the chamber, rendering the weapon useless. Well, Harlen had never seen a new case, and this one was no worse than the other rounds, so he poked it into the chamber and closed the bolt.
Still a half-mile away, the Hunters were a dark shadow spilling along the road, at least thirty of them. Harlen had suggested to his niece that the Hunters would rape her, but he did not really know if that was true or not. He knew that the Hunters were religious, that they rejected all machinery, even the wheel, and that they did not hold slaves. The Hunters had frequently butchered travellers, farmers, and loggers in this northern land, and taken their slaves; the strange thing was that whenever a Hunter village was cleared by a patrol, there was no trace of liberated slaves. There were many theories about the vanished slaves, some believed that the Hunters ate them; while some thought that a vast army of ex-slaves was being built up somewhere, ready for the day when all slaveholders would be destroyed. Harlen neither knew nor cared what the Hunters did with slaves, but he was determined that they would not take his stock.
Now he estimated the Hunters to be six hundred yards away, still too far to attempt a shot; he cradled the rifle across his chest, and waited for the range to close. He could see detail of the group now, it was split into two columns, one on either side of the road, and they were moving faster than his caravan. His fingers caressed the rifle, running over the strange inscription on its receiver; automatically, his left hand slid up to check that the muzzle was unobstructed. He had to force himself to wait, now that he could see the grim bearded faces of the Hunters, he could not possibly waste a round. When he could hear them talking, he brought the rifle to the aim, picking a big ugly brute at the head of the right-hand column; he aimed a few inches over the man’s head, and squeezed trigger and stock together; slowly, so slowly, and then the rifle rammed back into his shoulder. He saw the Hunter pitch forward, and then the sound of the shot came bouncing back from the forest edge as he slid the bolt back and caught the empty case. Swiftly, he put the case in his jacket, and chambered another round; he had four rounds left.
If the Hunters rushed him, he would be dead, but he did not expect them to do that, because they did not know exactly where he was, or how much ammunition he had. The road in that direction had suddenly become empty, except for the wounded man, who was now on his back, Harlen could see the man’s hands flapping furiously, as if he were trying to take flight. There was the sound of shouted commands, and then Harlen saw Hunters rise quickly out of the low scrub, and start running, not towards him, but away from the road. Someone was clearly in charge, and organising an anti-ambush drill; a line of Hunters was being extended on either side of the road, when both lines were formed they would sweep forward, Harlen had just minutes to make his escape. He stood up, and ran for his cart. There were more shouts from the Hunters as they saw Harlen, but when he reached the cart and looked back, he saw that the sweep lines were in position and moving forward; the commander must have suspected that Harlen was a decoy, and was going to sweep to at least Harlen’s present position. In a way that was good, because it made a little more time, but in another way it was bad, because it meant the commander knew what he was doing.
As Harlen gripped the side of the cart, steadying himself to hop up, a cramping pain across his chest doubled him up, and he sank to his knees. He had felt that pain before, but this time was worse than ever, and it was shooting into his left shoulder. He had to fight the pain and get moving, or he had a very short time to live; gasping for breath, feeling hopeless and desperate, he struggled to his feet, and onto the cart. He shook the reins, and the team move forward, onto the road. The driving whip whistled through the air, the ponies screamed, and the cart shot forward.
Harlen knew exactly what he had to do; the size of the Hunter group, the speed they were moving at, and the obvious competence of their commander, meant that he could not possibly camp for the night. He had to keep his caravan moving fast, and try to reach the town before the Hunters caught up. That meant that he might have to abandon most of his slaves, and that would hurt, but not as much as being nailed to a tree by the Hunters. As the chest pain faded, and his breathing grew easier, Harlen’s confidence returned. The ponies were running well, aided by his generosity with the lash, and he should be back with the caravan in a little over an hour. This team would be fit for nothing by then, but that did not matter too much; he would hobble them, give them some blankets, and leave them by the road. If the Hunters took them, that would be too bad, but if not, he could collect them tomorrow.
His main priority was to keep the Hunter women; he would have Nancy drive them in a double row in front of this cart, they were not harness trained, but Nancy was a former pony, she would know how to move them along. As for the baggage slaves and his trading stock, he would simply leave them to walk to town at their own pace. This was a tried and trusted slaver’s emergency technique; chained together, and without food, the slaves would have no option but to continue along the road. Harlen had every hope that the Hunters would simply pass by his slaves as they chased after him, but even if they took them, the price he would get for the Hunter women would compensate him for his loss.
Harlen caught up with his caravan sooner than he had expected, it was dawdling along at a snail’s pace. He drove past his chained slaves, and up to the lead cart; Nancy was asleep again, and Kylie was holding the rains. Exasperated, Harlen bellowed across at his driver. ‘Nancy, I’m going to skin you for this.’ She came to with a start, and stared at him with wide eyes, realising that something was wrong, but not knowing what. Kylie screamed at her uncle. ‘What is it? Why are you angry? Are the Hunters close?’
Ignoring his niece, Harlen barked orders at Nancy. ‘We have to move fast now, get the Hunter women harnessed; you’ll be driving them in this cart.’ He turned a murderous glare towards Kylie. ‘And you, hobble this team, and take them out of harness.’ He was expecting defiance, the girl usually refused to handle slaves, but on this occasion she obeyed him without question.
Quickly and nervously, he walked down the line of baggage slaves, he was forming a plan in which he would trot the best of them between the two carts, carrying half-loads. Any way he could reduce his losses would be good, and perhaps he could apply the same idea to his trading stock. Many of them were obviously unfit for to be pushed hard to town, but there were at least six that could probably be whipped along at a fair pace; still, that would still mean losing thirty of them, it was just too many. If only there was an alternative, he looked around, and yet another idea stole into his mind.
The river was very close to the road just here, with just a short stretch of firm looking ground in between. If he could get his caravan across, and defy the Hunters to cross the river under fire, maybe he would not have to leave any slaves at all. In an instant that decision was made, he wheeled around to see what progress Nancy and Kylie were making; Kylie had hobbled the ponies in the two-wheeled rig, and was removing the harness straps from the first pair of bloody shoulders, an expression of extreme distaste on her face. Nancy had fitted bits to the Hunter women, and was now bringing harnesses from the one of the baggage slave’s pack. It would be quicker not to change teams now, there was another decision made, ‘Kylie, leave that team in harness. Nancy, change of plan, we’re crossing the river.’
Nancy left the bits in the mouths of the Hunter women, returned the spare harnesses to the pack, and then came to her master, she looked more than a little anxious as she listened to his instructions. When he had finished, she gave voice to her concerns. ‘Master, we don’t know how deep the water is, are you sure we can cross?’
Harlen frowned, and answered question with question. ‘Are you questioning me? We are going across, I would rather drown all of them than leave any of them for the Hunters.’ He turned away angrily, Nancy was setting a terrible example to her fellow slaves, and he would have to punish her when the opportunity arose.
Harlen took the two-wheeler across first, and driving the exhausted team into the water was easier than he had expected. He flicked the whip at their ravaged backs constantly as they entered the shallows, and laid it on with real force when they hesitated in the waist-deep central part of the river; there were cries of terror and pain as eight feet scrabbled for grip on the bottom. The cart started to swing alarmingly in the current, but it straightened as the ponies found traction, and was soon in the opposite shallows, and then back on dry land.
Triumphant, Harlen shouted across to Nancy, telling her to send the stock over; burdened only by the chain that joined their necks, they crossed easily enough. Next, Kylie drove the other cart, with the Hunter women still on their chains behind it, through the river; she temporarily forgot her scruples about slavery, and whipped the ponies vigorously. Harlen took the Hunter women away and hobbled them, while Kylie sat on the cart weeping bitterly. Now there was just Nancy and the baggage slaves to come.
Nancy took a coil of rope from one of the packs, fastened one end of it to a chain joining the first two pack animals, and waded across the river. She fastened the other end of the rope to the rear of the eight-pony cart, while Harlen pulled Kylie from the seat, and took her place. He shook the reins, and the ponies walked slowly forward, taking up the slack in the rope. Nancy re-crossed the river, taking a short punishment whip with her, and with some difficulty, she drove the baggage slaves into the water. As the baggage slaves reached the deeper part, the rising water fed their fear, and Nancy used the whip to keep them moving. Just as the lead pair reached the shallows, one of the last pair slipped, taking her partner with her, and a domino effect soon had all twenty of them off their feet and floundering in the strong current.
Harlen lashed his team, and was able to at least prevent the cart being dragged backwards into the river, although he could not pull the baggage slaves forward; the air was full of the screams of the baggage slaves, of whipped ponies, and of the slaves on the bank, who cried out in sympathy with their fellow creatures in the river. Salvation was the current that had caused the crisis; with Harlen’s cart providing an upstream anchor, the line of baggage slaves swung like a gate, until the one who had first slipped was in the shallows, and Nancy hauled her to her feet. Soon, every member of Harlen’s caravan was safely ashore, and the business of pitching camp began in the gathering twilight.
Nancy had a few baggage slaves she had trained to erect tents, and she put them to work without allowing them any time to dry, or to recover from their brief ordeal in the river. Kylie had resumed her role as the patron saint of oppressed womanhood, and was moving from slave to slave, tending whip cuts and issuing towels. This suited Harlen very well, and he seriously wondered if his niece might have a future in the slave trade. There was always a conflict between squeezing the most performance out of the slaves, and keeping them in good condition; Kylie might well make a useful addition to his enterprise. As for Nancy, she had done a good job, as she always did, but he would still have to whip her.
There was no time to feed the slaves, they were safely chained in their tents, and then Harlen had Nancy prepare a small meal for Kylie and he. Chewing slowly on the dried meat, and sipping her coffee, Kylie was silent; Harlen guessed that she was reflecting on her role in the river crossing. After eating, Harlen took two blankets and his rifle to the river’s edge; he sat on one blanket, and draped the other around his shoulders. He had some hopes that the Hunters would pass by on the other side of the river, but they were very small hopes.
Inevitably, Harlen drifted into sleep; he was awakened by the hiss of whispered conversation from across the river. At first he seemed to be blind, but gradually he became aware of ghostly grey shapes moving on the opposite bank. His heart sank; one of the shapes hesitated at the water’s edge, and then began to wade out. The light was very difficult, but Harlen was never going to miss a man at a hundred yards; he fired, and the Hunter dropped with a mighty splash, but two of his fellows now entered the water, as the clouds parted and the scene was weakly lit by the moon. Hastily reloading the rifle, Harlen dropped the fired case into the water, but could not take the time to retrieve it. He squeezed the trigger again, but was rewarded by a useless click, the round had misfired; it was a panicky slaver who ejected the dud; he had only two rounds left. Lifting their knees high, the two Hunters were splashing quickly across the shallows; Harlen fired again, and hit one of them in the face, snapping the head back and sending a spray of blood and bone fragments over his companion. The second Hunter crouched for a second, and then turned back, zig-zagging noisily through the icy water.
Harlen thrust his last round into the rifle, and slammed the bolt shut. The decent thing, the act that civilisation demanded, would be to shoot Kylie. The sensible thing would be to shoot himself, but Harlen did neither, he waited for events to unfold. For a while there was no sign of life from the Hunters, but then a voice boomed across the river, so loud it made him jump.
‘Slaver, slaver, you can live if you send our women across.’
Harlen made no reply; he still planned to keep his treasure. If the Hunters were confident of taking him, they would not be offering a deal, but they were not aware of how dire his situation was. Suddenly Nancy was at his side. ‘Send the women over, Master, please send them over. They will kill you, and what will they do with me?’
Harlen was stunned. ‘I don’t know what they would do with you, Nancy. But I know what I’m going to do with you.’
Nancy was sobbing quietly, Harlen had not heard her cry for many years. ‘Yes Master, I know you’ll whip me, but please send the women over.’
Again the voice came across the river. ‘Slaver, slaver, send our women over.’
Just one round left. Harlen could fire it now, and hope the Hunters would give up and go away, or he could wait until they crossed the river in force. Or, he could send the women across. He chewed his lower lip as he pondered his options; those Hunter women would make two immensely valuable pony teams in the south, he could retire a rich man. Just one round left, he had to give up the dream. ‘Nancy, ‘ he said, ‘bring them out.’
As best he could see in the moonlight, he took his last look at the Hunter women. On his orders, Nancy removed their chains and tunics, and they went naked across the river. Now Harlen wished that he had at least had the satisfaction of flogging one or two of them, but it was all too late, he never saw a Hunter woman again.
In the morning, there was no sign of the Hunters. Harlen took Nancy out of sight of the camp, and almost reluctantly, he stripped her to the waist, tied her arms around a tree, and whipped her. He gave her just twelve strokes, but much of the old scar tissue opened up, she writhed and howled in her torment, and bled profusely. Nancy thanked him for punishing her, and he led her back to the camp, where he found Kylie waiting for him. ‘Are you proud of yourself?’ she asked, ‘are you happy?’
Nancy organised the slaves to break camp, she acted as if nothing had happened. The caravan crossed back across the river, and reached the town before midday. Harlen rented a barn to keep his slaves in, and spread the word that he had stock for sale; an auction was set for three days hence. To his horror, he discovered that many of the townspeople, especially the women, shared Kylie’s anti-slavery sentiments, and he was unable to prevent her from forming an alliance with the most virulent of them.
The day before the auction, Kylie addressed a packed meeting, at which she described the horrors she had seen on the long journey from the south. At the close of her speech, she pointed to Harlen, who was standing grimly at the back of the hall. ‘That man,’ she said, ‘has taken women from their children, to carry his baggage, and when they have protested, he has had them whipped. He drives women in harness, to pull his cart, and he cuts their bare backs with a whip to make them move fast enough. I myself have mopped the blood from the backs of helpless slaves he has maltreated. And tomorrow, he is going to sell some of the poor creatures, so that other men can whip them, and abuse them.’ She paused, and looked around at her audience. ‘Well, it’s your town. Are you going to allow it? Are you going to let women be sold into forced labour and prostitution? Because that’s what always happens, what other type of man would buy a woman?’
A loud murmur of agreement went around the hall, but Harlen had heard more than enough, he left, and went to his slave barn. He walked around, inspecting his stock, and trying to put Kylie’s speech from his mind. Nancy joined him. ‘Do you want one of these tonight, Master?’ Harlen almost laughed. ‘No, Nancy, I don’t think so. How’s your back?’
She shrugged. ‘It will heal, Master. Do you want me tonight?’ Harlen thought for a moment. ‘Only if you want to.’
Nancy looked perplexed, never in her life had anyone cared what she wanted. She repeated the question. ‘Do you want me tonight, Master?’ Harlen wanted to cry, and he did not know why. But he was unable to speak; he just nodded, and left the barn.
Later that night, Nancy came to Harlen’s room; she stripped, and climbed astride her master. Harlen cupped her breasts in his hands; he could feel the faint trace of scars he had put on them years ago, when he had curled a long stock whip around her agonised body. She began to work her hips, and Harlen wondered at the fortitude of this woman, and the loyalty, and the sheer quality of her. She must be nearly thirty now, and the thought of freeing her crossed his mind, but only briefly. When she had satisfied Harlen, Nancy left the bed. As a small child on a plantation, she had been trained to sleep on a mattress in her owner’s room, and that is what she did now. She slept on her side, because her back was very painful.
Snow started to fall as Harlen opened his barn for the auction; he had seen it on mountaintops before, but not coating streets and houses. To his immense relief, only a small crowd had gathered to harangue him and his prospective purchasers, and he was able to keep them out of the barn. Without Kylie, the protesters lacked focus, and Kylie was bound and gagged in Harlen’s room.
One by one, the slaves were stripped naked and paraded for the buyers. Muscles were felt, breasts were squeezed, and teeth were examined; bodily orifices were probed by enquiring fingers, and some slaves were made to run on the spot. There were farmers who needed a warm body in their beds, and loggers who just wanted strong bodies to work for a few years. As each slave was sold, Nancy issued her with a roughly fitting tunic and a neck chain, and the proud owner led his purchase away. The auction was over by noon, all thirty-six of Harlen’s stock slaves had been sold, and he considered it a successful day.
In the afternoon, Harlen released Kylie, and she ran from his room. He had intended to take her to the barn and whip her, but had changed his mind, it would not do for his slaves to see a mistress suffer the lash. He walked around the shabby little town, followed by a small group of thin-faced children; they did not look healthy, he thought, nobody up here looked healthy. The snow fell heavier and heavier, he returned to the barn, thinking over his finances. He was cash-rich, but had twenty idle baggage slaves, and twelve equally idle ponies, plus himself, Kylie, and Nancy to feed. It was going to be a long winter.
* * *
In the spring, Harlen began his journey home. He had learned one thing from the northern loggers, and that was the slave-rail. They used a slender rail with pairs of slaves fastened on either side of it to haul logs out of the forest, there were usually twelve slaves on a rail, and they could couple any number of rails together. Harlen had been impressed by the rail idea, it was so much simpler than a complex rig of harness traces, and so he had adopted it. He put all twelve of his ponies on one rail attached to the main cart, and twelve of the baggage slaves on another rail with the two-wheeler. With the carts piled high with supplies, and not needing to carry so many tents, he walked the remaining baggage slaves behind the cart as spares.
Kylie had refused to come home with him, and as the alternative was to drag her in chains behind a cart, he agreed to let her stay in the north, and he never saw her again. In the town, a woman who could write had given him a note explaining Kylie’s wishes, for Harlen knew that his brother would suspect that Kylie had been sold.
He headed south and west, across difficult country, where the caravan often covered less than five miles a day. Eventually, the Fatal Mountains were reached, and here a strange malaise struck; moving through one of the low passes, Harlen lost six slaves in as many days. In every case they weakened to the point of collapse during the day, and died during the night. Nancy’s folk-medicine heritage from thirty generations in slavery proved useless, and Harlen became convinced that he would walk out of the mountains alone. As despair and grief spread among the slaves, Harlen resorted to an ever more brutal regime, almost every night a slave would be flogged; Nancy performed this duty, for Harlen’s chest pains precluded such exertions.
At last they emerged from the mountains, and out onto the plains. Here the going was easier, and ten miles per day was achievable. There were occasional farms and towns where Harlen could replenish his supplies, and turn some more slaves into cash. Before they reached the Great Pie River, he had just one cart pulled by twelve slaves, with four spares on a chain behind. Nancy, of course, rode on the cart, and shared Harlen’s tent at night. Lying with her in the still hours, he often thought of how precious she had become, and he knew that he never again wanted to hear her scream, there had been too much of that.
In high summer, they embarked on a barge down the river, and Harlen began to get the feel of home. Sitting on the deck, he watched the passing landscape slowly transformed as the days passed, from wheat fields and forests to coffee and cotton plantations. A small galley towed the barge; river men, like miners, were among the few essential groups allowed to keep male slaves. When the oarsmen were taken ashore each night, heavily weighted with chains, Harlen stared in fascination at their massively muscled bodies, and at the huge penis that swung between every pair of legs.
In the warm glow of autumn, Harlen travelled to his brother’s farm, across a familiar landscape of neat fences and well-maintained roads. It was all so well ordered and efficient; not for the first time, Harlen thought that this must be the finest civilisation in history. His brother was extremely displeased to have lost a daughter, and Harlen had a difficult few days. Family peace was restored by a gift of four slaves, and then Harlen travelled to the coast. He was hoping to buy another stock of slaves, and to make another trading journey, even though his chest gave him ever more pain. But no slave ships had arrived during his absence, so market prices were beyond his reach; he had to find another way to make a living.
With his twelve slaves, and Nancy as his driver, he entered the contract labour business; they travelled from one plantation to another, picking cotton, harvesting fruit, whatever work he could get paid for. Sometimes, he had to work Nancy as a field hand, and suffer the indignity of being his own driver. But it was not a prosperous business, his cash dwindled, and one by one, he had to sell his slaves, until he did not have enough labour to continue.
His last venture was a small ferryboat; with Nancy driving his last four half-starved slaves at the oars, he carried travellers across an estuary. Living in the same hut as Nancy and the slaves, Harlen eked out a miserable existence, and tried not to think too much about his better days. As the years passed, the chest pains tormented him more; he always moved slowly, to avoid waking that dragon, but a chilly morning with a wind off the sea would usually make a cripple of him. Nancy cared for him as best she could, but there really nothing much she could do, other than to ensure that she or the slaves did all physical exertion.
On a lovely spring evening, five years after his return from the north, Harlen took the ferryboat onto the estuary, and told Nancy to rest the slaves when they were halfway across. There was not the slightest breeze, and the boat drifted slowly on the tide; gulls wheeled overhead, a cormorant flapped past slow and lazy, bright-eyed terns bobbed on the waves, the blue of the water contrasted perfectly with the lush vegetation on the shoreline, it was all achingly beautiful.
Harlen sat in the stern, with one arm looped over the tiller, his eyes staring blankly. He thought of the Hunter women he had lost, and his stand on that cold northern river. It was so difficult, trying to make sense of the river of blood that had flowed through his life, and of the screams that had rung in his ears too often to be noticed. He could only conclude that there was no sense to it; there was no sense, no purpose, and no point. As the setting sun touched the water, sending a rippling band of reflected red across the estuary, he fired his last round.
Copyright© 2006 by Carter Fell. All rights reserved.