by Marian Allen
Hunting and fishing were good. He cleared some of his land and planted cotton, hiring runaway slaves and a few Indians to harvest it. Cotton prices were high.
Then they weren’t.
The English started importing from India. The land, which wasn’t really cotton land, stopped producing.
The price of land, up to more than fifty dollars an acre, went down to under a dollar.
But Benjamin and Stella had lived frugally and saved money, keeping it in gold and silver coins and not those paper bank notes nobody could cash in these days. Turned out the Lord didn’t bless them with children, but they took in any child orphaned or abandoned – black, white, or red. Enough money and plenty of hands to run hogs in the woods where the porkers could fatten on mast.
Everybody was arguing about slavery, but Benjamin and Stella were too busy scratching out a living to give it much thought. They didn’t hold with it and never would, but they didn’t see how other states’ business had anything to do with them.
Then a knock came at the cabin door in the middle of the night.
Benjamin got his rifle and went to the door.
“Who is it?”
Isaiah had ice water for blood. He could almost step on a copperhead and he’d just draw back his foot so slow and easy the snake wouldn’t know he’d been close. He sounded rattled and breathless.
Benjamin opened the door and invited him in.
“Benjamin, I know you don’t mix with politics and all, but I need to ask you a favor. A big one.”
“You know I come out of slavery, many a year ago.”
“Well, my Jennie’s made it out, and our two children, and four children her master got on her and was going to sell away. She says the slave-catcher’s been after them the whole time.”
“Where are they?”
“Out in the barn.”
Benjamin looked toward the sleeping loft. Stella’s round white face peered down at him and nodded.
“Bring ’em in.”
Moments later, Isaiah returned with a shivering woman, two young men, two little boys, a little girl, and a babe in arms.
Not a quarter of an hour had passed before the dogs raised a ruckus and there was another knock at the door.
Benjamin still had his rifle.
“Who is it?”
“Name of Jonas Meisinger. I’m a-looking for somebody.”
“Whoever you’re looking for ain’t here. It’s just us.”
“May be they just passed through.”
“If they did, they didn’t come in nor wake the dogs.”
“These here dogs are getting mighty threatenin’. I got my dogs on a leash. I’d hate to have to kill me a yours.”
“Tie your dogs outside and come in. Mine are just barking at you. They’ll be fine with your dogs.”
The man who came in was so dirty, it was impossible to tell his race, and he was as thin as the black woman stirring a pot over the fire.
“Now, who’s this?” The man, Jonas, stared her up and down.
Stella, walking the floor with a howling baby, moved between his gaze and the woman at the hearth.
Benjamin said, “This is my wife, Stella. Stella, you seen any strangers around here?”
“No,” she said. “Nancy, is that milk gonna be warm soon?”
“Yes, Miss Stella. If you don’t start lettin’ down enough for that baby, we’ll have to take her out and just plain give her to the cow!”
Giggles from the sleeping loft drew Jonas’ attention. A row of faces of various shades and colors looked down, eyes moving from the stranger to the baby to the warming milk.
Benjamin said, “You young’uns get back to sleep. Chores before dawn, and I don’t want nobody dreamin’ at the churn or the pump.”
One of the boys pantomimed going to sleep while pumping water and the others laughed.
Benjamin stamped on the dirt floor. “Git!”
The little faces disappeared, but smothered laughter still drifted down like hay dust.
“They must of gone on past,” Jonas said. “Mind if I spend the night in your barn?”
“Help yourself,” said Benjamin. “I’m sayin’ to myself, ‘This here’s a slave catcher.’ Illinois is free territory, so I don’t mind a bit if you take it easy and let whoever you’re looking for get away. In fact, I wish you would.”
Jonas pulled a filthy handkerchief out of his pocket and ran it over his face.
“I’d be ‘bliged for a piece of bread and some meat, and a fill-up from your well.”
“Send you off with it in the morning.”
“Now, if you don’t mind. I think I’ll move on tonight.”
“You sure? Nancy makes a fine fried egg.”
“I better move on. If you can’t spare the food – ”
“No, Nancy’ll get you something. Nancy, give the man a sack of bread and potatoes and a couple of smoked hocks.”
“Yes, Mr. Benjamin.” She swung the pothook off the fire. “Miss Stella, I b’lieve the milk’s warm enough.”
Stella sat and dipped a twist of cloth in the milk, giving it to the baby to suck, crooning and rocking and singing until the baby calmed.
When the door had closed behind Jonas and the sound of his dogs and his cursing had vanished in the distance, Stella rose and handed Jennie’s baby to her.
“You’d better be Nancy as long as you stay here, in case he comes by on his way home.”
“How long can we stay?”
Stella and Benjamin exchanged a look, but they could always read each other’s mind.
“Long as you want to. It’s a free country.”
I’m posting today at Fatal Foodies on the topic of a falafel sammich I made the other week.
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Your character has an unwelcome visitor.