Chris looked out at the fifty or so men, women and children that were working hard in the field, watched closely by two overseers. “They know no better Joe, it’s the way they were brought up. They genuinely believe that the blacks are incapable of looking after themselves and wouldn’t survive on their own. They justify it because it’s always been that way for them.”
“Its still wrong.”
“You are preaching to the wrong congregation Joey, I’m already a believer.”
They rode through two large ornate wrought iron gates and up the long approach to the mansion. A little boy was sitting on a low stone wall whittling at a piece of wood he looked up at the two strangers and a large white grin split his face. He jumped up and ran towards the house yelling at the top of his voice.
“Mas’a Justin, Mas’a Lance, Mas’a Justin they is here Mas’a.”
The front door swung open and Justin strode out to see what all the commotion was about. He was a tall young man slender but solid built, thick blond unruly curls shone like gold in the bright midday sun. His sapphire eyes sparkled mischievously as he yelped excitedly taking the porch steps two at a time as he hurried to greet them. Lance, a slightly shorter and slightly older man appeared no more than a heartbeat behind him, his smile warm and friendly. He ran his fingers through his un-brushed blond hair, raking at it with his fingers in an attempt to tidy it up.
“You’re here you really made it.” Justin gushed “Leroy, Leroy go tell mamma Fee that there will be two more for dinner then come see to the horses.” He hugged his academy friends tightly before standing aside and letting Lance take his turn.
“We can see to our own horses Justin.” Joey said adamantly.
“Nonsense!” Lance interrupted. “The boy will see to them now come inside and tell us all about your journey.”
The entered the huge mansion into a wide reception room with a long sweeping staircase. The décor was Parisian style, with gold and cream touches. Hard polished rosewood floors were littered with a variety of rugs. Chris stared overwhelmed at the lavish home of his best friend. “All this from growing cotton?”
Lance grinned “Compared with some of the homesteads in these parts its really not that extravagant, Miss Lynn likes to keep it simple.”
“Miss Lynn?” Chris looked at Joey who in return raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“My mother.” Justin enlightened them. “She is at the slave quarters right now, one of the girls is giving birth. Momma likes to be at hand for such occasions but she will be joining us later. Please come into the parlour and sit down.” The young curly haired blond made a sweeping gesture towards an open door ushering his friends inside.
“Are you two related?” Joey asked unable to fathom the relationship between the two southern men.
Lance chuckled in his deep bass voice. “We’re cousins, you’ll find most folk are related in someway or another.”
“Now honey what are you saying? You will give these fine young men a bad opinion of us.” Lynn Randall glided gracefully into the room, her stiff skirts brushing the floor. She swept up to her son, embracing him before moving on to Lance.
Justin guided her to his friends. “Momma I’d like to introduce Christopher Kirkpatrick and Joseph Fatone.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Mrs Randall.”
“Oh please call me Miss Lynn, everyone does.” She pulled a cord that hung by the fireplace summoning a young black girl of about 16 years old. “Carrie, please bring mint junipers for everyone.” The girl gave a little curtsey and dashed out to the kitchen.
“How is Ella-May momma?”
Lynn rolled her eyes. “She had a little boy, but she was hooting n hollering, like she was the first to ever have a baby, She named him Jeremiah. I had Mr Larkin enter his name on the register.”
“I’ll go down and take a look later.” Justin waited patiently while Carrie poured and served him a drink, then she moved on to serving everyone else.
A small tap at the door caught their attention.
Leroy peeped timidly round the door. “Mas’a Justin, there be a man at the front door, says he need to talk to you and Miss Lynn.”
“Show him in.”
A tall man with greying hair pushed passed the small boy, his hand held out for Justin to shake. He bowed quickly to Lynn before accepting a juniper from Carrie. He scowled at her disapprovingly and waited for her to leave the room before he spoke.
“I’m sorry to intrude Mrs Randall but I have dire news. The McLean’s have had a slave run away.”
Joey and Chris shifted uncomfortably in their seats and looked at each other.
“A runaway is hardly dire Sir.” Lance said.
“This one assaulted the McLean girl. He was to be punished, made an example of, but somehow he escaped during the night. Mr McLean is in the process of questioning his slaves now, someone cut his bonds.”
Justin pursed his lips and gave a low whistle. “You think he’s heading this way?”
The overseer nodded “There’s a good chance yes. Sir we want him back alive the boy has to be publicly punished for daring to lay his filthy hands on a lady of breeding.” The man got up to leave. “He has a fresh brand on his right cheek, McLean mark.”
Justin shook his hand once more. “Ashley is alright isn’t she?”
“She seems none the worse for her ordeal. If you come across the scum send a messenger and we will come get him. My apologies again Mrs Randall. ”
“It is not a problem Sir, please relay my regards to Miss Ashley.
“With pleasure Ma‘am.” Justin walked the man to the door and shook his hand once more.
“Will the master of the house be attending our party tomorrow night?”
The McLean overseer smiled “Wild horses would not keep them away.”
Justin waited till he mounted his horse and rode down the long drive before he went back to his guests. On entering the room he found everyone in deep discussion.
“They really will hunt this boy down like he was an animal?” Joey was asking.
“He is an animal, he has turned on his master.” Lance was arguing.
Joey shook his head his words becoming more and more heated. “He is still a man, he has the same brain capacity as you and me.”
“Mr Fatone.” Lynn’s soft sweet voice rang out. “What would you do if you had a faithful old dog, a dog you loved with all your heart. But then that same dog bit your daughter? You would take that dog into the yard and you would shoot it wouldn’t you? This is no different.” Joey started to argue but she cut him off. “The slave only assaulted the McLean girl, he could so easily raped and killed her, maybe the next time he will rape and kill.”
Justin interrupted his mother. “Much as I hate the way McLean treats his people I have to agree with Lance and my mother on this. The slave broke the trust and will be punished.”
Justin walked to the fireplace and pulled on the cord summoning Carrie once more. “Carrie will show you to your rooms I have to go and check on Ella-May and speak to Mr Larkin about the runaway.”
The string quartet was playing as the guests began to arrive; every family of good breeding had been invited. The ladies in their best dresses swept majestically round the room all with their eyes on the four West Point officers. Justin groaned quietly and rolled his eyes as he spotted a young woman he had hoped wouldn’t be attending. Lance sniggered and pointed her out to Joey and Chris. The three men stood smirking as here almond eyes rested on the handsome young plantation owner, she glided to his side linking her arm through his.
“Brittany, so nice to see you here.” He may not like the girl but he was brought up to be polite.
“Justin honey, you look so handsome in your uniform, her eyes drifted over to the other three officers. “Are you going to introduce me to your associates?”
The curly haired blond resisted the urge to throw up at the sugary tone that she was using opting instead to distract her attention from him. “Miss Brittany may I introduce. Joseph Fatone and Christopher Kirkpatrick and of course you know my cousin Lance.”
The young woman flipped open her fan and fluttered her long lashes at the three men. Joey took the initiative, “Miss Brittany could I get you some refreshments.” He offered her his arm and much to Justin’s relief she accepted it graciously.
As soon as she was out of ear shot Justin let out the breath he hadn’t realised he was holding. “What was that all about?” Chris asked.
Lance chuckled “Miss Brittany there has the idea that she might like to be the next Mrs Randall.”
Justin puffed out his cheeks, slowly letting the air escape from his mouth. “I have been dodging her for the past 6 months and I’m doing it again. Forgive me gentlemen but I am going to make myself scarce till Miss Spears has retired for the night. “ He ignored Chris’ and Lance’s jeers of coward and headed out to the barn. The scent of hay filled his nostrils, he breathed deeply inhaling the smell of the horses. He stripped off his dress shirt and picked up the pitchfork using it to pull down feed for the tethered animals. He froze as a small unfamiliar sound reached his ears. He forced himself to carry on with his task, now alert and ready, a tiny movement caught the corner of his eye and he pounced. Taking the young man by surprise pinning him by the throat with the sharp-pronged fork.
The man whimpered in fear and lay perfectly still, his eyes wide in terror of being caught. Justin pulled the sharp prongs away from the bared throat and in the blink of an eye reversed the tool and struck the fugitive across the temple with the handle knocking him unconscious. Making sure he was really out cold Justin examined the man. The McLean brand stood out angry and black against the pale white skin. This was a slave? He whipped off his belt and used it to tie the slender wrists together and secured them above the slave’s head to a ring used to tether horses. The slave began to stir, moaning softly as he clawed his way back to consciousness. His eyes flickered open. Justin gasped they were bright cornflower blue, bluer even than his own. The slave whimpered and drew his legs up to his chest squeezing his eyes shut, trembling violently under the glare of the free man.
Justin crouched down to his level and twisted the slaves’ head examining the brand more closely. “You are the runaway?”
Joshua nodded his mouth shaking, unable to find his voice to answer. Justin stood up, striding towards the barn door to get Mr McLean to come and collect his property.
“Please Mas’er, Joshua never hurt Miss Ashley, Please let Joshua go.” A single tear ran down his face.
“Its not my place.” Justin said as he left.