Saturday, January 17, 2009

Conflict by Stevie Woods

Things had changed a lot in Louisiana in the long months since Pieter had left. Many of Cane’s neighbors had become more belligerent in their attitude, becoming more determined to proceed with forming their own government, knowing very well they were inviting war with the authorities in the North. It was surprising how many of them didn’t seem to understand that war only brought destruction, not the simple clean break they imagined. At first perhaps they could be forgiven for their confidence because when the fighting finally began, started by the forces of the newly formed Confederacy as they fired on Fort Sumter, they eventually forced its surrender.

The first few months only added to the fervor for the war among the Southern folk who ran the neighboring plantations along the Mississippi’s River Road. The Confederate States’ army won the early battles, but, gradually things began to change as the North won time after time. The South began to realize it wasn’t going to be a swift victory after all.

The situation began to hit home when the Union navy blockaded the mouth of the Mississippi River at New Orleans. The action systematically destroyed the two forts guarding the entrance to the bay, thereby besieging the city. Within days, New Orleans itself had fallen and the North had a foothold in the South, trapping the Confederacy between two fronts. The over-riding confidence shown by the South dissolved in the unexpected defeat, and the overwhelming embarrassment of the loss of its largest city without even a shot being fired in its environs. By the first of May, 1862, New Orleans was an occupied city.

With the loss of that early confidence, attitudes changed. The fighting was now literally on their doorstep, and over the next few months there were constant battles, particularly along both sides of the Mississippi River. Many of them were little more than skirmishes as the Confederate forces tried to make headway against the Union forces, who used boats to keep the river clear from New Orleans up to Baton Rouge, the state capital.

It was only a short while before the loss of New Orleans that the Confederacy had introduced conscription for men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. Sebastian had only just turned thirty-five a few weeks earlier, but even without that fact, he was exempt from the draft as the conscript did not apply to those whose work was considered essential to the war. Plantation owners and their workforce came under such exclusion if they chose to exercise it. Some did and others volunteered anyway.

Gradually, Sebastian lost all but one of his overseers, as only Grover remained while the others left to swell the Confederate ranks. They were eager to show the Union that the South was not to be trifled with. Even a couple of his slaves risked much to escape with the intent of heading north, hoping to try and fight against the Confederacy.

One of the overseers, Wheeler, had reported to Sebastian after overhearing a conversation between a handful of slaves. He asked for permission to flog two of them he had heard discussing the possibility of escape. They hoped to go north, believing they would be free then, even be able to fight against those who had enslaved them. Ever since Van Leyden had taken over as plantation manager, the overseers were no longer allowed to punish the slaves without his consent, much to their annoyance. Sebastian had backed the decision and continued the practice after Piet had left. When he’d listened to the overseer’s opinion, Sebastian turned down his request. Wheeler was vociferous in his disgust at Cane for refusing to allow him to whip the two slaves.

“I see nothing wrong in a man wishing for his freedom,” Sebastian snapped, quieting the man with the force of his will. “A man’s thoughts and desires can’t be chained, Wheeler; you would do well to remember that.”

“They were talking to others, sir, causing unrest,” Wheeler tried again. “You know how the darkies need a strong hand to control them, sir. It doesn’t do to allow them to spread such ideas.”

“I doubt very much that they were saying things the others hadn’t already thought themselves, but I will speak to them,” Sebastian added, dismissing him. Sebastian had long since accepted that Pieter had influenced his thinking more than either of them had realized. It wasn’t until after he was gone and Sebastian took up the reins again that he saw how much his understanding had evolved. Before Pieter had come to work for him, Sebastian left the overseers to control the slaves as they saw fit, learning to his cost that some of them overstepped the mark considerably. It was through Pieter’s ex-slave and one-time lover that Sebastian discovered the cruelty of his Head Overseer; the man had not only whipped Joss but had repeatedly raped the young slave. Sebastian would never again abrogate his responsibility for those under his care.

In any event, Sebastian never got the opportunity to speak to the two slaves. The men managed to run away that night.

Wheeler attempted to remonstrate with him the next morning, pointing out that he had been right and Sebastian had been wrong, but all Cane said was, “Can you blame them? What would you have done in their place?”

Wheeler stared at him as if he was crazy. “That’s it!” the overseer declared, incensed. “This place has been going downhill ever since Sharston left. That damn Dutchman poisoned you. I’m leaving! Gonna go where I can do some real good, get things back the way they should be. Show the niggers their place in this world.”

With that, he stalked away, another overseer joining him. Heads close together, the two men spoke, glancing back only once in Cane’s direction. They were the first of Sebastian’s white workers to leave and join the Confederate Army, but they weren’t the last.

Sebastian had thoughtfully considered the matter of joining the Confederate Army himself. He did not really wish to fight for the continuation of slavery, though the Confederacy was careful to deny it was the most important cause for the rebellion. However, he had another, more pressing reason for wanting to stay at Morning Star. Once he left his plantation, the remaining slaves would have little protection. Most of his overseers had already left. True, it could also result in any slave who was prepared to take the risk making a run for freedom. But that meant they could just as easily be taken by any other slave owner who found them, or even by the army who demanded slaves as laborers when they wanted. Sebastian felt he owed his slaves loyalty and whatever protection he could afford them.

It was almost a shock to understand that it was only his responsibility to his slaves, those people he had kept in bondage all his life—all their lives—that kept him tied to his home. His concern had always been for the plantation, for his family’s inheritance, but that meant little to him now.

His priority was no longer bricks and mortar or the land he worked. Only one thing really mattered to him now: Pieter, and he was far away and presently out of reach. No wonder Sebastian felt his life was so empty now. Everything had changed and he hadn’t even realized it until it was too late. He should never have allowed Pieter to go north without him.

Then he remembered he didn’t only have himself to think of; it was his responsibility to look after the men and women that slavery had made reliant on him. By omission, he had made those people vulnerable and he couldn’t desert them now. He had to find a way to provide for them, for as long as he could. The more time passed, the more important it became for him to stay, when all he wanted to do was to ride north as fast as he could.

North to New York—where Joss had also traveled all those months ago.

Thinking of his lover far beyond his reach, Sebastian couldn’t help but wonder if Pieter had ever run into Joss after he arrived in that bustling city. He couldn’t help the jealousy that tore through him thinking about Piet meeting up with his ex-slave, boyhood friend, and one time lover. He still remembered Pieter’s shock at finding Joss at Morning Star, the shock that had turned to horror when it was discovered that the Head Overseer, Sharston, had been abusing him terribly. Partly out of guilt and partly for Pieter’s benefit, Sebastian had given Joss his manumission papers. Pieter had accompanied the ex-slave to New Orleans, where Joss had decided to travel north to New York.

That had been in the fall of 1860, over six months before Pieter had felt obliged to leave Morning Star and the connotations of slavery that he could no longer abide. It had taken Pieter another month or so to settle on staying in New York himself and Sebastian had no idea if Joss was still there by that time, though he couldn’t help but wonder. He berated himself for worrying about it, for even if Piet had met up with Joss again, that didn’t mean anything more than Pieter had a friend to turn to, rather than be alone so far from home, so far from Sebastian.

God, Sebastian knew he was being unfair, knew he could trust Pieter, but he missed his lover so much. It had been so long since he’d seen him that he couldn’t help the doubts creeping in. He couldn’t deny that Pieter was a younger man, healthy and passionate and very attractive, nor could he ignore the possibility that Piet might need anonymous sex; but Sebastian knew he would never betray their relationship. Even with Joss, a man that Pieter had once loved? No, no.

Sebastian leaned his forehead against the cool glass of his bedroom window, eyes closed as he recalled the raw passion his lover had exuded when they had made love that last time. He couldn’t stand the thought of another man sharing such fervor. Sebastian wondered if that was how Pieter was when he and Joss had been lovers, if the slave had experienced Pieter’s passion like that. Sebastian prayed not; he wanted it to be something only he would ever witness.

Pieter was his. Sebastian felt the tightness in his chest, felt the pounding in his ears as his blood coursed through his veins to fill his groin. His hand slid down his body until he could caress himself, groaning a little as he dreamed that the hand sliding inside his clothing wasn’t his own, but that of his absent lover. Oh, God, he wished Pieter were with him and not so far away. Then his hand stilled as the unwelcome thought tortured his mind and wilted his ardor: Lord, I don’t even know if he’s still alive!