My suspicions were well-founded, as the sequel demonstrated. The next day but one, while scraping cotton in the field, Epps seated himself on the line fence between Shaw’s plantation and his own, in such a position as to overlook the scene of our labors. Presently Armsby made his appearance, and, mounting the fence, took a seat beside him. They remained two or three hours, all of which time I was in an agony of apprehension.
That night, while broiling my bacon, Epps entered the cabin with his rawhide in his hand.
“Well, boy,” said he, “I understand I’ve got a larned nigger, that writes letters, and tries to get white fellows to mail ’em. Wonder if you know who he is?”
My worst fears were realized, and although it may not be considered entirely creditable, even under the circumstances, yet a resort to duplicity and downright falsehood was the only refuge that presented itself.
“Don’t know nothing about it, Master Epps,” I answered him, assuming an air of ignorance and surprise; “Don’t know nothing at all about it, sir.”
“Wan’t you over to Shaw’s night before last?” he inquired.
“No, master,” was the reply.
“Hav’nt you asked that fellow, Armsby, to mail a letter for you at Marksville?”
“Why, Lord, master, I never spoke three words to him in all my life. I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well,” he continued, “Armsby told me to-day the devil was among my niggers; that I had one that needed close watching or he would run away; and when I axed him why, he said you come over to Shaw’s, and waked him up in the night, and wanted him to carry a letter to Marksville. What have you got to say to that, ha?”
“All I’ve got to say, master,” I replied, “is, there is no truth in it. How could I write a letter without any ink or paper? There is nobody I want to write to, ’cause I haint got no friends living as I know of. That Armsby is a lying, drunken fellow, they say, and nobody believes him anyway. You know I always tell the truth, and that I never go off the plantation without a pass. Now, master, I can see what that Armsby is after, plain enough. Did’nt he want you to hire him for an overseer?”
“Yes, he wanted me to hire him,” answered Epps.
“That’s it,” said I, “he wants to make you believe we’re all going to run away, and then he thinks you’ll hire an overseer to watch us. He just made that story out of whole cloth, ’cause he wants to get a situation. It’s all a lie, master, you may depend on’t.”
Epps mused awhile, evidently impressed with the plausibility of my theory, and exclaimed, “I’m d—d, Platt, if I don’t believe you tell the truth. He must take me for a soft, to think he can come it over me with them kind of yarns, musn’t he? Maybe he thinks he can fool me; maybe he thinks I don’t know nothing—can’t take care of my own niggers, eh! Soft soap old Epps, eh! Ha, ha, ha! D—n Armsby! Set the dogs on him, Platt,” and with many other comments descriptive of Armsby’s general character, and his capability of taking care of his own business, and attending to his own “niggers,” Master Epps left the cabin. As soon as he was gone I threw the letter in the fire, and, with a desponding and despairing heart, beheld the epistle which had cost me so much anxiety and thought, and which I fondly hoped would have been my forerunner to the land of freedom, writhe and shrivel on its bed of coals, and dissolve into smoke and ashes. Armsby, the treacherous wretch, was driven from Shaw’s plantation not long subsequently, much to my relief, for I feared he might renew his conversation, and perhaps induce Epps to credit him.
I knew not now whither to look for deliverance. Hopes sprang up in my heart only to be crushed and blighted. The summer of my life was passing away; I felt I was growing prematurely old; that a few years more, and toil, and grief, and the poisonous miasma of the swamps would accomplish their work on me—would consign me to the grave’s embrace, to moulder and be forgotten. Repelled, betrayed, cut off: from the hope of succor, I could only prostrate myself upon the earth and groan in unutterable anguish. The hope of rescue was the only light that cast a ray of comfort on my heart. That was now flickering, faint and low; another breath of disappointment would extinguish it altogether, leaving me to grope in midnight darkness to the end of life.
THE year 1850, down to which time I have now arrived, omitting many occurrences uninteresting to the reader, was an unlucky year for my companion Wiley, the husband of Phebe, whose taciturn and retiring nature has thus far kept him in the background. Notwithstanding Wiley seldom opened his mouth, and revolved in his obscure and unpretending orbit without a grumble, nevertheless the warm elements of sociality were strong in the bosom of that silent “nigger” In the exuberance of his self-reliance, disregarding the philosophy of Uncle Abram, and setting the counsels of Aunt Phebe utterly at naught, he had the fool-hardiness to essay a nocturnal visit to a neighboring cabin without a pass.
So attractive was the society in which he found himself, that Wiley took little note of the passing hours, and the light began to break in the east before he was aware. Speeding homeward as fast as he could run, he hoped to reach the quarters before the horn would sound; but, unhappily, he was spied on the way by a company of patrollers.
How it is in other dark places of slavery, I do not know, but on Bayou Boeuf there is an organization of patrollers, as they are styled, whose business it is to seize and whip any slave they may find wandering from the plantation. They ride on horseback, headed by a captain, armed, and accompanied by dogs. They have the right, either by law, or by general consent, to inflict discretionary chastisement upon a black man caught beyond the boundaries of his master’s estate without a pass, and even to shoot him, if he attempts to escape. Each company has a certain distance to ride up and down the bayou. They are compensated by the planters, who contribute in proportion to the number of slaves they own. The clatter of their horses’ hoofs dashing by can be heard at all hours of the light, and frequently they may be seen driving a slave before them, or leading him by a rope fastened around his neck, to his owner’s plantation.