Samuel Reed reined in his palomino mare in front of the gabled porch of the plantation‘s mansion. The massive building made the simple-living man uneasy. He slid his trail worn body from the saddle and walked up to the intricately carved door. He hesitated a moment before knocking.
The frail-looking, elderly butler answered. He smiled, revealing a missing top front tooth. “Welcome home Missa Sam. Massa Granger is waitin’ in da office. He say to send ya right in.”
Sam had failed in his four-day mission to find a suitable horse for his boss’s son, Eric’s, twenty-first birthday and wasn’t looking forward to this meeting. As he neared the ajar door of the room, a hearty voice boomed out, “That you Sam?”
“Yeah.” He was embarrassed about the weak sounding response that escaped his
lips. He pushed the door open wider and stepped into the large rustic study.
MacIntire Granger, Mac to those close to him, sat behind a massive oak desk with papers sprawled in front of him. In his wide brimmed hat and leather vest, he looked more like a cowboy than the rich owner of one of the area’s largest plantations. He smiled at his overseer. “Any luck?”
“Nope.” The only horse meeting the boss’s standards was a magnificent black stallion with a silky coat and smooth stride. Sam didn’t have the heart to let the reckless kid ruin such a beautiful creature.
“No matter. Rex wired me from Texas. He has a couple of horses to check out tomorrow. Something will work out.” Mac leaned back in his chair. “Have a seat. You look dog tired.”
Sam dropped his aching body into the leather, wing-backed chair across from the desk. The two men eased into a comfortable conversation about plans for the herd of stallions, geldings, and mares. The plantation was famous for its fine stock. At eleven, Sam rose. “I better be moving on. Morning will come too soon as it is.”
Mac stood and rounded the desk. “I’ve got a favor to ask. There’s a fifteen-year-old that Eric’s been looking after. He’s the adopted son of an old friend of mine. The kid’s Christian, well-educated, and good in the field. Problem is he’s black. A business rival found out he could read and threatened to have him lynched. There’s still laws against such things in these parts.” The plantation owner paced, his voice strained. “We’ve got to keep him safe. I’ve got business in Virginia tomorrow. He’s in the hut. Can you see to him for me?” The hut was a sod structure with only one small window near the ceiling, built some years back to lock up slaves needing discipline. It was dark and damp.
Sam wondered what trouble the boy had gotten into but was too tired to ask. “No problem,” he replied then plopped his hat on his head.
“Thanks. I owe you.”
Sam Reed stepped out into the cool, crisp air. He glanced over at the hut, wondering if he should check on his new charge. Smoke poured from the chimney. “He’ll be fine till morning,” he reassured himself.
The overseer stabled his horse then headed to the three room log cabin that had become his home. He opened the door. A fire in the hearth and a sandwich on the table greeted him. He smiled, pausing to thank the One above for the special people that worked under him. He ambled to his bedroom as he ate, looking forward to the luxury of a soft bed after nights of sleeping on the ground.
Sam woke at five the next morning and stretched his six feet, three inch frame. He pulled on his pants then ambled to the front window. Noting the hut’s smokeless chimney, he reprimanded himself for not checking on the youngster last night. He quickly prepared a simple, warm meal while coffee brewed in his trail worn pot. He gathered blankets and a kerosene lamp. Wrapping the coffeepot in a towel, he placed it in the basket with the other food. He tucked the blankets under his arm, grabbed the lantern, then hurried out the door.
Reaching the hut, he knocked. “Are you awake?” No answer. He inched open
the door and entered the damp, cold structure.
Stunned, Sam stared at the naked teenager rocking back and forth on a stripped
mattress. The boy clutched his legs against his chest; his chattering teeth mocked his efforts. “Please sir, don’t make me go out like this again.” He did not lift his bowed head.
The young man’s plea wrapped around Sam’s heart, evoking emotions he thought he had buried along with his wife and daughter after a cabin fire claimed their lives ten years earlier. He had been out hunting and returned to find their charred remains. He knew what it was like to feel desperate and alone, grasping for a piece of humanity to relieve the ache inside. After marking their graves, he left southern Oklahoma and joined the army, becoming a medic. Easing the pain of others helped him pull the pieces of his shattered life together and gave meaning to his empty existence.
“Son, I’m not going to hurt you.” The overseer walked slowly toward the young man, unfolding one of the blankets as he talked. Reaching the youth, he draped the heavy cloth around his shaking shoulders.
“Thank you sir.” The teenager pulled the blanket tightly around his body.
Sam spread a second blanket over the young man’s legs. “Where are your clothes?”
“Mr. Eric burned them all. He said, ‘They’re too uppity for black trash.’”
The former medic swallowed, longing to ease the teen’s humiliation. “What’s your name son?”
“Matthew,” the youth whispered.
“That’s a good name. Right from the bible like mine. I’m Samuel but most call me Sam. It keeps things simpler.”
The overseer rubbed his hands together. “It’s a little chilly this morning. How about some coffee?”
Matthew’s head popped up, his widened, chocolate-brown eyes met Sam’s gray-blue ones, as if searching for honesty in the offer. He nodded. The overseer poured the steaming beverage into a tin mug then held it out towards the youth. Matthew freed a still trembling hand from the blanket and reached out for the cup. “Thank you sir.”
“No sir stuff for me.” The brawny, broad-shouldered man smiled. “It’s just plain old Sam. I’m going to bring in some wood. I have a mess of grub I hope you can help me eat.”
When Sam returned laden with logs and kindling, the youth’s shaking had lessened. After starting a fire, the overseer moved a small, roughly made table in front of the young man. He unpacked the food and filled a plate for the youth. Matthew quickly said grace then began shoveling food in his mouth, swallowing most of it whole.
“Slow down son, or you’ll get sick,” cautioned Sam. “When’s the last time you had anything to eat?”
“I ate some grass yesterday.” The young man frantically pushed himself back against the wall.
“It’s all right son.” His heart ached as if tied to the youth’s pain. He closed his eyes and silently prayed to the Lord for guidance. “Have you had any real food since you’ve been here?”
Matthew shook his head.
“Then you better sit up to the table and finish your breakfast.” Sam pulled up the room’s only chair and began eating.
The youth inched himself forward, pausing frequently as if gauging the other’s reaction. He picked up his fork and resumed eating at a slower place, taking time to chew his food.
Sam glanced at Matthew, noticing rope burns around both wrists. He cringed. Heavy-hearted, he picked at his food. Where would he get clothing for the young man this early on a Monday morning? Unless…something in his old trunk would work.
The overseer pulled a couple pieces of thickly sliced bread from the basket and placed them on the youth’s plate. He refilled Matthew’s empty cup with hot coffee. “I’ll be right back.”
Sam pulled the door shut then turned around. The boss’s son sat on a chestnut gelding with a smug look on his face. “So you checked on that uppity trash.”
“You’re never up this early,” the overseer blurted out.
“A man needs to make sacrifices to keep this place running.” Eric Granger smirked. “You’re too soft Sam. I figured you’d just let that lazy black animal lay in warm comfort all day if I didn’t bring some clothes.” He tossed a twisted up ball of cotton to the overseer. “They come off again when he’s through working.”
“He needs boots and a jacket.”
“That’s all he gets. Take it or leave it.” The haughty young man leaned back in his saddle. “Just get him out in the field. I’ll check on him later.” He spurred the horse, leaving no opportunity for argument.
The youth was biting into the second piece of bread when Sam reentered the hut. “Matthew, here’s some clothes for you. I’ve got to go hitch up the wagon. That should give you plenty of time to finish eating and get dressed. Stay inside and keep warm until I call you.” He laid down the rumpled bundle on the cot then left.
Twenty minutes later, Sam reined in a matched set of draft horses. “Matthew.”
The door squeaked as it opened. The youth walked out, gripping a huge pair of worn pants, his eyes downcast. He shuffled along, folds of material gathered at his feet. The large, moth-eaten shirt was missing the top two buttons and had fallen off the young man’s left shoulder.
Sam grabbed the rope he kept below the driver’s seat then jumped down from the wagon. “Sorry son,” he choked out. He took a deep breath. “Let’s go inside and fix things up a bit.”
Matthew lumbered forward like a bent and broken old man, devoid of hope. Sam kicked the door shut behind them. He cut off a length of rope and held it out for the young man to see. “This should keep them trousers up.” After tying a knot, the overseer cut a slit in the shirt where the top button was missing and pulled some rope through it and the corresponding buttonhole. “It’s not the best, but it should keep you covered.”
Tears welled up in Matthew’s eyes. He dashed them away with the back of his hand then squared his shoulders.
Sam’s heart ached as he watched the young man grapple for control. He longed to snatch him up and carry him away from all the pain and humiliation. Where would that be in a world that viewed the black man as property with no rights? The big man sighed. He picked up a blanket off the cot and draped it over the youth’s shoulders. “I guess we better get to work.”
Matthew tossed the blanket off and grabbed the hoe beside him as they neared the field. He jumped off the wagon before it stopped.
Sam stood at the edge of the field, admiring the rhythm and speed of Matthew’s work. The six foot young man was ahead of the rest despite starting later and widening his row to assist the elderly man beside him. The overseer’s chest swelled much like a proud father’s.
Sam shook his head. “Stop dawdling Reed.” He pulled a fifty-pound feed sack off the wagon then started towards the barn.
Mid-morning, Eric Granger pulled his horse up at the edge of the north cotton field. He reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a flask. After a few swigs of corn whiskey, he grinned. “Finally getting some work out of you black animals.”
Matthew kept hoeing, his head bowed
Eric dismounted and staggered over the new black kid. “Give me that rope boy,” his slurred voice bellowed.
"Please sir,” Matthew begged. “I need it to hold up these pants.”
“Let them fall.”
Sam rushed onto the field as his new charge dropped to his knees. “Have mercy.”
“Just do what you’re told,” Eric ordered.
“Give him the rope.” Angered by the demeaning tactics of the boss’s son, the words came out sterner than Sam intended.
Matthew shuddered as he sat back on his lower legs. His hands shook as he fumbled with the knot.
“Maybe you need some help.” Eric pulled a knife from his left boot.
The overseer put up an arm blocking his advance. “He can manage.”
Soon, Matthew had the rope off. He held it out without looking up.
Sam retrieved it and tossed it to Eric. “Good to see you’ve got this scum under control.” The arrogant upstart smirked as he headed for his horse. “See that this black devil is punished.”
The overseer looked down at Matthew. In a gentler tone, he asked, “Can you get up?”
The tormented youth gathered the folds of material about his waist in his right hand and pushed himself up with his left. Although his knees shook, he managed to stand. He swallowed. “Are you going to tie me to the tree?”
“No,” Sam calmly replied, inside seething at the injustice of the situation. “Come with me,” he added, intending to get the boy away from those gawking at him.
The young man hung his head as he plodded behind his boss. They entered the barn.
Sam pulled the pocketknife from his back pocket and cut off a length of twine. He started toward the youth. Matthew’s eyes darted back and forth, as he stepped back on trembling limbs.
Although he was a muscular man, the overseer’s gentle nature rarely evoked fear and never to the degree he was seeing now. He remembered the knife and returned it to his pocket, rebuking himself for his carelessness. “Easy son. I just thought you’d want something to hold up those pants.” He inched closer to the frightened teenager.
He pulled the twine through the belt lops while Matthew held up the large garment. “Thanks,” the youth whispered.
Sam brushed up against the cold skin of the young man’s arm. He pulled a blanket from a stall rail. Its rough woolen texture was scratchy but at least it was thick. He draped it over Matthew’s shoulders. “Let’s warm up some before we go out again.”
“Mr. Eric wants you punished for not obeying him,” the overseer explained. “You’ll have to work an hour longer than the rest of the hands.” He loathed disciplining the boy for merely wanting to keep his body covered.
Matthew nodded. He pulled the blanket tighter around himself, covering his hands in the process.
Joe Blanchard, Sam’s right hand man, entered the barn, bearing two steaming mugs. “The wind’s really picking up out there. I thought the two of you could use something to take the chill out of your bones.” He handed one to his boss and the other to the youth. “You got a minute Sam?”
The overseer took a sip of the hot coffee. “Sure.” The two friends meandered to the other end of the barn.
“That kid’s been through a lot in the last two days.” Joe glanced at Matthew then
continued, “That worthless cur of Mac’s and his bunch of goons have been stripping him naked and tying him to the big oak by the hut. Yesterday, they marched the women-folk from the slave shacks up there. He was already trussed up. When he begged them for mercy, they just laughed and tore off his clothes.” Joe hung his head. “I should have stopped them. I tried once but they threatened to whip him so I backed off.”
Sam put his hand on the older man’s shoulder. “There’s nothing you could have done. I just wish I could have gotten something warmer for him to wear.”
“Mac’s brat get to you too?”
“Yep,” the overseer admitted. “It was take what he’s got or nothing. We’ve got to find a way to do better by him.”
Sam stared at his coffee, then added, “Mac’s a good man but a bit blind when it comes to his son. I will talk to him about Eric’s abuse when he gets back from Virginia.”
Joe’s green eyes brightened. “The boss fired the last guy who mistreated a slave.”
Sam set his mug on a straw bale. “How about a quick prayer?” The men bowed their heads. “Lord, we ask you to protect Matthew from further pain. Heal his hurt and fear. Help us to keep him safe. Amen.”
“Amen.“ Joe smiled. “Glad you’re back Sam. With two good Christians on his side, how can he lose?” The foreman winked before walking out the west door.
Sam admired his friend’s simple, yet steadfast faith. He took a swallow of coffee then started back toward the youth.
Matthew sat on the barn’s earth-packed floor and tucked the blanket around his feet. He leapt up when the overseer headed his way. Tangled up in the woolen folds, he stumbled but righted himself before falling flat on his face.
Early that evening, Sam glanced up at the dark, ominous clouds off to the west. His stomach gnawed as he watched the lone figure across the field. The half-starved, sleep deprived, and ill clad young man’s pace had slowed but the rhythm continued, never breaking stride. Others would have collapsed long ago.
The overseer pulled out his pocket watch. It had been a half-hour since the other hands had retired for the day. “Please God help him make it.” He shuddered to think of the punishment Eric would dole out if he didn’t. He approached the exhausted-looking youth.
As Matthew rounded the corner to start the next row, it began to rain. “Give me strength sweet Jesus. I’m so cold,” he whispered. As rain pelted his weary body, the youth began staggering like a drunken cowboy.
Sam grabbed his arm to keep him from falling. “Only five minutes left son.”
No response. The medic in the overseer took over, assessing the youth—not shivering, shallow breathing, drowsy, and ataxic—hypothermia. He ran to the wagon for a dry blanket, his heart pounding.
He draped the heavy fabric around the young man. “It’s quitting time.”
Matthew continued turning the soil. Sam grabbed the hoe and pried the stiff fingers from it. “You can stop now.”
The glazed eyes gave no indication of understanding. Sam led the young man to the wagon. He knew he should get him out of the soaked clothing but didn’t have the heart to strip the vulnerable youth out in the open. He wrapped him in blankets and lifted him into the wagon.
Seeming to sense the overseer’s urgency, the horses took off full speed. Sam
reined them in beside the hut and set the break. “Joe,” he yelled, cradling the
unconscious young man in his arms.
The plantation foreman opened the door. “How’s he doin’?”
“Not good. Spread a blanket out in front of the fireplace.” Sam carefully lowered
Matthew, hoping to hear some response.
“He’s out cold,” Joe commented.
“We’ve got to get him out of this wet stuff and in bed fast.” The overseer checked for a pulse—slow and weak. “He’s barely breathing. Hand me a towel.”
Sam spread the towel over Matthew from waist to mid-thigh before peeling off the skin clinging pants. Joe removed the tattered, sodden shirt. They rapidly dried the young man’s cool, blue-tinged skin then wrapped him in warm blankets. The overseer lifted the youth while Joe dragged the cot close to the fireplace. Sam laid his still inert patient down and covered him with some thick quilts. “He’s just gotta’ make it Joe.”
“The good Lord’s keeping an eye on him.”
Shivering, Sam crossed his arms across his chest. A tear trickled down his left cheek. “I’ll never forgive myself if he dies.”
Joe put his arm around his friend’s shoulders. “He’ll pull through. He’s strong.” The younger man trembled. “You better go change clothes. You can’t help him if you’re laid up in bed. I’ll watch him until you get back.” The foreman gently shoved his friend towards the door.
Sam glanced back at Matthew’s still form. “Please God…,” he silently prayed
then stepped out. The cold, wet rain slapped him in the face.
“Hey, Joe open up.” Sam tumbled into the room. He unloaded his armful of supplies on the table. “How’s he doing?”
Matthew stirred, a soft moan escaping his lips. Sam rushed to his side. He checked the youth’s pulse—sixty, regular, and strong. His chest rose and fell in an even rhythm. The former medic looked up. “Thanks.”
Flinging an arm around his friend’s shoulder, Sam smiled. “I’ve got a cot out in the wagon. Could you help me lug it in here? I’m staying with him tonight.”
“Thought you might. No problem.”
A half-hour later, the overseer sat on the edge of the cot, staring straight ahead, mesmerized by the youth’s regular breathing. The young man knit into the fabric of his being. Maybe God was giving him a second chance to be a father.
Sam shook his head, took a sip from the steaming mug, then picked up his soot-stained bible. Somehow it had survived the fire and had become a companion through many dark days. He opened it and began reading, “The Lord is my Shepherd…” The familiar words washed over him, bathing him in peace. He drifted off to sleep.
“Help me!” Matthew sat bolt upright. He wrapped his arms around his bare chest. The overseer sprang up. Grabbing his quilt, he enveloped the young man’s torso.
“It’s OK son. You’re safe.” “Didn’t I work hard enough?”
“You did a fine job. No one could have done better.”
“Then why am I naked again?” Tears streamed down Matthew’s black cheeks.
Sam embraced the youth’s trembling shoulders and drew him near. “We couldn’t leave you in those wet clothes. You would have died.” Matthew rested his head against the big man’s chest and sobbed.
“We kept you covered,” the overseer quickly added, praying the youth would understand. “Joe is heading out in the morning to find something decent for you to wear.”
The tortured youth relaxed in the big man’s arms. His breathing became regular.
At sunrise, Joe quietly inched the hut’s door open. His exhausted friend sat cradling the sleeping youth in his arms. “Tough night.”
“Do you think he’ll give me another chance to earn his trust?”
The older man smiled. “Looks like his already has.”