SLAVE BOYS

by Ted Langston Chase

Luke and Elisha share fishing on the Salkehatchie River, a river that flows past the plantation on which they have lived all their lives. They are seated at their favorite spot which is a good distance from the main house, clusters of workhouses, and slave quarters. No one can overhear their conversations. 

“In the first place, it was dumb of South Carolina to leave the union,” Luke said as he cast his line into the water and leaned back against a tree.

“It’s too late Luke? It’s done, they made their bed…they wanted things their way,” Elisha answered.

“You think their way is going to work? They’re already losing…they just don’t want to admit it. Crazy Mary thinks things are going to go back the way they were.”

“Watch it Luke, someone might hear!” Elisha warned.

“No one is close enough, Elisha. Hey, caught another one! That makes ten good size rockfish…that’ll make the kitchen happy,” Luke said.

“It’s getting late, let’s get back,” Elisha said.

Luke and Elisha always walked around the plantation as they pleased. Crazy Mary allowed that. She is the wife of Lucas Simmons, the owner of the plantation and 200 slaves. Everyone knew that Luke was his son by a slave who had long since died. Lucas met Mary while he was on a trip to Ireland. He brought her back to the plantation as his wife. She had always been different and as the years wore on, she got worse. All the slaves agreed that she really started getting crazy when her husband joined the army to fight for the Confederacy. She was left on her own, and it wasn’t long before she started treating certain slaves like dolls, dressing them in fine clothes…she really liked what she claimed were the prettiest slaves. Luke and Elisha were her favorites.

From the very beginning, Mary fussed over Luke and Elisha, saying how Luke had keen features like his daddy, with soft brown hair and emerald-green eyes. She would always laugh and say, “You keep that secret that flows through your veins tight, don’t let it loose, you hear?” Then she’d caress Elisha’s face and say, “Just look at your skin, dark as midnight without a single blemish, and smooth as sweet satin.”  She’d hold him close and say, “that strong jaw, chiseled face and wide set, onyx eyes are that of a prince…why you’re an African prince!”  She dressed Luke beyond his years in the clothes of a rich southern planter and Elisha in the colorful, soft, imported clothes of a far-off land in Africa.

It was well known that Luke and Elisha had the oddest lives of all the slaves, beginning with being educated by Crazy Mary. Crazy Mary and her husband had numerous arguments about supporting Luke’s talent for reading and writing and enhancing Elisha’s skill with numbers and bookkeeping. This was just another proposal Crazy Mary insisted on. Her husband warned that if the authorities discovered this, the boys could be maimed, and he would lose his status with the Confederacy. But as her pleas turned almost violent, he conceded. She promised to confine these lessons to their dormer bedroom. Luke and Elisha had been living in the dormer bedroom of the main house since they were five years old. They slept together in one large, four poster feather bed for years; so any candlelight, late at night in their room would not be suspicious. Mary ignored how as young men in their early twenties the practice of sleeping in the same bed might become a problem. 

“Luke, stop sleeping so close!” Elisha whispered one night.

“I…we’ve been sleeping close from the very beginning, not about to stop now,”  Luke said as he rested his head against Elisha’s back.

The next morning, they were awakened by Jacob Norwell, the owner of a nearby plantation. He was arguing with Mary as he forced her into his wagon with her valuables. “Union troops are only twenty miles away, I got to get you out of here!” Mary screamed for Luke and Elisha as Norwell’s wagon sped off and Mary’s pleas faded. That would be the last Elisha and Luke would see of Crazy Mary. 

Meanwhile, Elisha and Luke prepared to leave the plantation like many others were doing. Elisha instructs Luke, “Just put some clothes and all the gold coins in the valise, forget the paper money, it’s worthless! I’ll go as your boy! We got to get going!” Elisha and Luke took a fringe top carriage, the plantation’s best team of horses, and head west, out of the county and South Carolina. They drove by towns that were ablaze…and through the remains of some of the south’s most beautiful cities.

“We need to head for California!” Elisha announced.

“What’s in California?” Luke asked.

“Freedom!” Elisha answered.                                

Elisha and Luke traveled for two months. Their masquerade as slave owner and slave held up with only a few stares from innkeepers and hotel clerks who objected to Elisha’s presence. Luckily, Elisha’s six-foot, muscular build, and stoic countenance kept objections to nothing more than mean stares.

They finally arrived in San Francisco. It was very different from the false civility and grace they grew up with in South Carolina; everyone seemed to have an offhanded way about them. After settling on a hotel near the city limits, they were befriended by the owner and his daughter. Soon after, the owner offered Luke a position to manage the hotel; and Elisha was hired as the hotel’s money man…nothing was spent or received unless Elisha approved it and entered it in the hotel’s ledger.

Elisha and Luke only worked in the hotel. They decided to take a room over a nearby saloon so their sleeping habit would not be noticed.  On days off, Elisha would take a horse and ride into the wilderness without asking Luke to join him. Finally, they began to talk to one another about their new lives.

“Where do you ride off to on your day off? Why you keeping it a secret?” Luke asked.

“There’s no secret. I just want to be where nobody’s around,” Elisha answered.

“Why?”

“I’ve come to like my own company.”

“Thanks!”

“You know what I mean, Luke. And since we’re asking questions. What about Melissa? The boss’ daughter…she’s mighty keen on you. I can tell.”

“Nothing there, Elisha.”

“Why not?”

“You know why!” Luke snapped.

“You know Luke, you’re lucky! You don’t have to do too much to keep the secret that flows through your veins. Why not marry, everyone expects it?  You could do a heck of a lot worse by marrying her.”

“Marry her?”

“Yes! Just don’t have kids!”

“Not on your life and what is this secret of yours? I still want to know about this place you ride off to. You never ask me to come along.”

“I just need my time. You should know that by now.”

Elisha and Luke stared at one another. Then Elisha broke the silence.

“You know how my parents ran off…how they left me with Lucas and Crazy Mary. I always wondered why they didn’t take me.”

“You know why, Elisha…kids make noise that can tip off slave catchers.”

“I guess.”

“What’s that got to do with riding off on your own?” Luke asked.

“I’ve been thinking more about being and staying alone…staying to myself. Had enough of being ripped from folks I thought I was attached to…it hurts too much.”

“You aren’t alone, Elisha. You know that, you may want to pretend you’re alone, but you know the truth about us.

“There’s no us.

“Yes, there is…always has been!”

“No, that was Crazy Mary’s idea, she started us off on the wrong track…there’s no US.”

“Why do you keep fooling yourself? Yeah,we always knew it was different, sort of unnatural…then we learned that you can’t rely on anyone when you live on a plantation, you never know what might come next; so we really were on the right track after all…what was between us became okay…necessary, natural even! We’re together now! Like it or not, it’s the right track for us! No one can change it, and no one has to know!”

“I don’t believe that, being connected to someone is too risky. I’m never going to chance being torn away from anyone again. Since I have my own money now, maybe I should buy a small place, be on my own…take care of animals, maybe start cowboying…being with animals is safer, they can’t be taken from you, at least not the way they take people from one another.”

“You sure come up with some strange ideas when you’re on your own.”

“I remember when my mama and papa took off. You don’t get closer than the child you bring into this world. But they let me go…or maybe they were forced to, either way I was left behind. Cowboying or taking care of animals seems safe to me, in fact, there couldn’t be a better job for someone like me…no more people connections to worry about.”

“You can’t hide with animals! I’m not going to let this happen!”

“It’s not your choice, but you do have another choice, you do…just keep your secret tight and marry that girl…and remember, NO kids!” Elisha insisted.

“It’s only because you’re scared, can’t you see that? All these years we’ve been close, real close, it means something to me…always has…and it means something to you too,” Luke explained.

“Don’t tell me what I feel!”

“Like it or not, we were forced into a dangerous way to live…we never asked for it, but it’s done now, now it’s natural, it’s our way…we need each other…we always will,  we are joined!”

Elisha grabbed Luke by the shoulders. “You gotta marry that girl!! You can have a good natural life now! There was nothing real about all that stuff back on that crazy plantation! Happy slaves working until they drop dead or are killed. Being born to people, being part of them, then having them ripped away…gone forever. Everything about that place was make-believe!”

“You can’t run from us, Elisha. My secret is your secret. Running off to take care of animals isn’t going to work! You know I’m telling the truth!” Luke moved face-to face with Elisha.

Elisha looked down and away, but he could feel Luke’s breath. Shaking his head, he quietly said, “I can never, I will never again give you what you want, I can’t.”

“That’s not true, you always do…as I do whenever you call me. You’re just afraid we’ll be forced away from one another and that’s never going to happen. Ever.” They looked up at one another.

Luke moved closer.

“Don’t!” Elisha whispered. He pushed Luke aside. He ran to his horse and rode off. He whipped his horse into a gallop, then let him slow to a trot, after a while, he allowed his horse to walk and graze. When he arrived at his secret, safe place he sat and watched a herd of bison as they gathered at a nearby stream. The quiet solitude put Elisha at ease, an ease he never felt around others, but he admitted to missing Luke. Then out of the blue, he heard a horse approach. It was Luke.

“You followed me?” Elisha asked, somewhat annoyed.

“I held back so you’d think you were on your own. You had to know I wasn’t going to let you keep your secret from me much longer.” Luke sat next to Elisha. They watched the herd of bison together. Then he said, “You’re right, it is quiet and peaceful…just animals.”

Elisha didn’t answer.

“We got to make this work, Elisha!”

Elisha paused, then he said, “Now that I think about it, I guess maybe I wouldn’t know how to live on my own, even with animals or cowboying. Truth is, being together is the only life we know.”

Luke interrupted, “I know you’re the money guy back at the hotel, but you need to know we have more gold coins than you think. We could do this, I can do this…we can buy a small place together, then tend to animals or do cowboying…we can make a good life for ourselves!”

“How’s that going to look, Luke? Two grown men off on their own, running a place for themselves?”

“We’d be ranchers!” Luke answered.

“Without a woman around? Ever?” Elisha asked.

“Our masquerade will hold up! The outside world will think we were just carrying on with that…‘old times there are not forgotten’ southern stuff…you know, slave and slave master!” Luke answered.

“I always hated that southern stuff!”

“We can do this Elisha! We can even try to find your parents!”

Elisha looked at Luke and said, “It is our way, isn’t it? I guess there’s an us after all.” They stood and faced one another. Elisha put his arm around Luke’s shoulders and said, “This just might work after all, let’s go back, get some supper and think some more…we’ve always been good at that.” They headed back to figure out thinking about their future together.

Drawing courtesy of The Wanderer Online Visual Editor Karlee Mong.