Wild Horse Herd in the Moonlight by Stephanie Laird
The things of the night cannot be explained in the day
Because they do not then exist. ~ Ernest Hemingway
(Warning: This story contains language that may be considered offensive, but is aprapos to the time and place where it is set.)
“Did you see ‘em last night, boy?” Luke Flynn said.
“See what, sir?” young Ben DeVitte said.
“The thievin’ Kiowa what is gonna steal our horses and kill us in our sleep if you don’t stay awake while’s you’re on watch.”
“I was awake, sir. Never slept a wink. Watched the herd all night.”
“Then that’s even worse, boy,” Luke said. “Means you don’t even see ‘em when they’re right there in front of you.”
“I don’t know what you mean, Mr. Flynn. I watched the horses all night and they never spooked once. Hell, they slept and I didn’t. Nothing came near ‘em ‘cept maybe a coyote once, and I shooed him off.”
“If that coyote’d a mind to, this morning he’d be riding your horse and wearing your hair on his belt,” Luke said. “That’s one of the oldest tricks these magpies have, dressing under some animal skin to get close enough to the herd or some unsuspecting eastern boy and whisking them from their rightful ownership.”
This statement was doubly hurtful to Ben. The fact that he never saw the Kiowa scouting the herd he was charged with guarding was embarrassing enough. But he didn’t need reminding that he was property of Luke Flynn’s boss, Captain Angus Blair, of the Tennessee Blairs. That is, his slave.
Now I ain’t gonna tell Mr. Smithson about this, boy. But you’d better keep your head on a swivel and your eyes as big and white as your great-great-granny if you don’t wish to catch a whuppin’ and then some from the boss man,m” Luke said and spit in the dust between Ben’s feet.
“Now climb in that wagon box and get a couple hours’ sleep. We got work for you to do before midday.”
“Yessir. Mr’ Luke?”
“Thanks for tellin’ me about them coyotes. I’ll be on the lookout for them tonight,” Ben said.
“Boy, you won’t see ‘em tonight, neither.” Tonight they could be a bunch of bushy grass, a hooty owl, another god damn horse, for all we know.”
“Then how am I supposed to learn what to look for?” Ben said.
“Boy, if you ain’t sure if something is what it appears to be, it more’n likely is. If it appears to be exactly what you think it is, it more’n likely ain’t. ‘Course, it could always be vicey versy. I can’t explain it in the daylight anyway. I just knows. An’ jawin’ out here when you’re wasting what little time you got for shut-eye might be your dumbest niggra thing ya done yet on this trip. Now git in the box,” Luke said and gave Ben a boot in the rear as punctuation of his declaration.
Once under a blanket in the wagon, jostled between flour sacks and barrels of salt pork, whisky and gunpowder, Ben once again went through his journey from Creole stable keeper’s son in Louisiana to being a slave for a former British officer’s horse farm in Tennessee.
He’d heard that gangs had come into Louisiana and Florida looking for fugitive slaves, but also seeing if they could grab some dusky-skinned youngster who might pass for an octoroon or such. In this time of “one drop” of a black man or woman’s blood you making you a potential Negro, his Creole father’s and Mexican mother’s complexions made their son a prime bit of profit, once the slavers grabbed him one night and took him back upriver to Tennessee.
“I ain’t no Negro,” he yelled when he was put on the block in Memphis. “I’m an educated white boy and you’re all making a big mistake, if not breaking the law.”
The thump on the back of his neck with the butt of a whip loaded with lead quieted him and the rag tied around his mouth while the room spun finished the job. Smiths and Capt. Blair paid a pretty penny for the strong boy with the reported history of knowing his way around horses.
“Time to get up you lazy nigger bastard,” Smithson said as he pulled Ben from the wagon box. “You and Flynn go work the tail-end of the herd. Can’t afford to lose any in daylight like you almost cost us in the dark.”
Ben blushed, the heat rising from his neck to his eyes. How’d Smithson know? A hardcore Texan like Flynn wouldn’t give him away.
“I got my eyes on you, boy. Next time you fall down on the job, I’ll be layin’ some stripes on your yeller back,” Smithson said.
“Oh and you’ll be guarding the herd again tonight. And I’ll be guarding you. Now, git,” Smithson said, laying a quirt across Ben’s arm as he rode away.
“Why’s the Army need these horses, Mr. Flynn? Don’t they have enough farms and rancheros out here to provide their stock?” Ben said when he found Flynn in the choking dust cloud at the back-end of the herd.
“Because Cap’n Blair greased enough palms in St. Looie and Warshington to get the contract for his stock’s why. Boy, for someone so book-smart, you sure are life-dumb,” Luke said.
“Well, I’m just a lowly slave boy, suh,” Ben said with an edge to his voice he wished he hadn’t expressed to Luke.
“No reason to get so uppity, boy. I know you ain’t no nigger and my guess is Cap’n and Smithson do, too. But they got law, money and strong arms on their side, so’s they’ll always win. Now go fetch back that sorrel over there.”
That night, Ben sat in the saddle on a chestnut gelding named Bristol. The Captain named his horses for historical people and places back in England. The fact an Englishman had so many slaves, including himself, was a pondering to Ben. England had outlawed slavery twenty years before.
“I guess the Cap’n likes his workers on the cheap side and to stay on the job until he decides to make a profit off ‘em. Just like you, Bristol, you old jughead<“ Ben said and rubbed between the horse’s ears.
The rustling in the bushes to his right startled Bristol before it did Ben. He was about to sound the alarm when he saw Loy, another of Blair’s slaves working this trip to some fort on the Brazos.
“Shhh, brown boy. Don’t go callin’ yore white friends. They’d just as soon whup or hang you as any other slave who’d light off or let one,” Loy said in a whisper.
“You runnin’, Loy?” Ben asked.
“‘Course I is, fool. I figure I got a better chance of getting away here in Indian country than I do back in Tennessee,” Loy said.
“Now gimme yore hoss.”
“That ain’t happening, Loy. Smithson’s likely watching us right now, if he didn’t send you out here to test me,” Ben said. “And lord knows, I ain’t looking to get no whuppin’ almost as much as I ain’t lookin’ to be bound to some sinful Scotchman’s whims.”
“Then I guess I’ll just have to take me one of the herd,” Loy said. Ben saw he was carrying a length of rope with which he fashioned a hackamore, a bites bridle, to control any horse he escaped on.
“You weren’t expecting me here tonight, were you?” Ben said.
“No, and I’m not sure if I’m happy or mad I did,” Loy said as he placed the hackamore around a gray named Exeter’s nose. “I’m headed for The Nations. I hear a man can hide out there pretty well. After that? Well, we’ll see.”
“You do know the Cherokee got slaves up there, right?” Ben said. “And you gotta ride through the Kiowa and maybe even them bloody Comanche to get up there? I hear the Comanche don’t care what color you are, they’ll just turn you inside out when they catch you.”
“I’ll take my chances,” Loy said, hoisting himself onto Exeter’s back. “You wanna go with me? I could use a partner and once Smithson finds a hoss stolen, he’ll turn your back inside out, boy.”
Ben heard another bit of noise to his left, away form the herders’ camp.
“Get down off that horse, Loy. Take him into the herd and mingle with the others,” Ben said. He wasn’t sure who or what made that noise, but he was sure he didn’t want to be found talking with any fugitive, or about-to-be-fugitive, slave while he was supposed to be watching the herd.
He looked at the Colt revolver Flynn had given him before watch. It carried two loads—all they trusted a slave with—in its cylinder. They were to be used to alert the camp of any raiders or to shoot any horse thieves. Either way, the camp would be warned.
Smithson emerged from the brush.
“Who you talking to, boy?” he said, banging his quirt on his right thigh. He’d been into the whisky again. Deeply.
“No one, Mr. Smithson. Just ol’ Bristol here,” once again he scratched between the chestnut’s ears.
“You see anything out here, boy? Anything moving about?”
“No sir. I’m bein’ mighty careful about this here herd tonight. Don’t wanna get me no whipping’, sir”
“Well, Loy’s missin’, and I’d expect to find him over here, even though the damn fool nigger wouldn’t know which end of a horse you feed and which you pick up after.”
Oh, wouldn’t you be surprised, you pompous bastard, Ben thought, remembering the well-woven and knotted hackamore Loy placed on Exeter.
“Awright, boy, you see or hear anything…anything, you give a shout or fire off a shot at it, or I’ll be selling your white ass of to some Mississippi cotton spread. They know how to treat an uppity bastard like you.”
Ben straightened in his saddle.
“You know, don’t you?” he said to Smithson. “You know I’m white.”
“I wouldn’t rightly say white. More a mongrel Cajun greaser, truth to tell. But you know horses and you can pass for part nigger, so you’ll do in a pinch. Now keep your eyes open and your ears cocked, boy, or I’ll have your hide and somebody in Natchez is gonna get them a Bible-reading field hand. Or maybe I should just leave you out here for the crows and buzzards. I don’r think Cap’n would care once we’re done here anyway.”
Smithson, moved his quirt to left hand and was about to pull his own Colt when Ben fired his first bullet into the overseer’s chest.
“Kioway, Kioway,” he yelled, firing his other bullet into the air, which spooked the herd and the horses began running for open range.
Ben dropped off Bristol, grabbed Smithton’s gunbelt and ammunition, hooked the dead man’s horse’s reins and shouted to Loy.
“Let’s get us to The Territories, Loy. They’ll be running’ ’til daylight and more trying to gather the herd,” said, slapping the overseer’s quirt on Exeter’s rump and howling like he thought a Kiowa raider might.
On the books at Fort Belknap, the ledger said that Luke Flynn delivered 138 head of 150 ordered from Capt. Angus Blair. Flynn explained that Kiowa had raided them one night and made off with twelve horses and killed his boss.
“They must’ve made off with the a Negro name’a Loy who was guardin’ the herd, too,” he said. “Never could find ‘em. Cap’n’s gonna be mighty upset about us losing them horses, though.”
A first-draft wing at a story inspired by that quote from Ernest Hemingway via my friend Sharyl Fuller. Don’t know exactly the entire connection of story and quote, but it’s what sparked this story about a boy judged dark enough to be a slave and bright enough to never have existed when he put daylight between himself and enslavement. Oh, and I guess this story qualifies as ONE of my genres, per the Story a Day rules.