The Lexington moon hung low in the sky as Chris stepped out onto the cold blue grass of the Meyers' front yard, which looked into the darkened windows of the structure just ahead. After a lengthy duration of unseasonal chilly rain, the clouds had parted and revealed a black expanse speckled with twinkles. He let his bright blue eyes wander the wide horizon before moving forward through the soft earth, toes sinking slightly.
John had been quiet after supper and Chris had studied him curiously as the flames danced and licked inside the deep, brick-laid chimney. The vacant hollowness in his cousin's face did nothing to hide the haunting memories no doubt filling his mind, but Chris left him alone, as he knew a lot was on the man's mind. The war had changed everyone and had left many either empathetic to the suffering of those who seemed to endure endless cruelty, or detached and viciously protective over the old way of life. The two families had been raised on a poor farm and were unable to afford indentured labor, but their opinion was based on their often-daily interaction with slaves, and the obvious injustice that many black folks endured.
Chris pulled open the heavy wooden door of the main house, his thoughts falling on his good friend Ulysses Longview, a young man who worked as a slave on a plantation not twenty minutes away from their property. Uly's account told that he was hardly weaned from his mother when he had been stolen from Hispaniola. He and his two sisters were among several collections of individuals considered valuable to the lucrative slave trade, and this included very young children. Although the young slave could not remember much about his oldest sister who made the trip to the States with him, he knew she had been called "Bea" by name and had been tall enough to tower over him.
Bea had been sold to a slave owner in Richmond, Virginia while Uly and his older sister Gracie were bought by a man who lived in Lexington. Chris had been batting around flat rocks on his way to the schoolhouse when he had encountered Uly, hardly tall enough to climb a tree, whose thin arms carried a woven basket full of eggs and a sack of bread. The two boys approached each other with cautionary interest, but quickly developed a lasting camaraderie when Chris had taken the basket and carried the eggs to the plantation for the boy, temporarily ignoring his obligation to school.
Chris lit a candle and tiptoed through the silent house, pausing first to glance over at the sitting room, where the embers inside the hearth still glowed orange. The rocking chair was now empty of John's presence, so the young man assumed his cousin was now resting in his bedroom. He crept down the short hallway and knocked softly at the door. When no voice was heard, Chris pushed his way in, and moved over to the bed. Here he found the bony, sleeping form of his cousin, who looked just as pale as before, even in the candlelight.
The young man studied John's shallow breathing before reaching out and palming his forehead. Chris' spirit sank when he detected the menacing presence of a fever. A quick glance at the wound in his side revealed inflamed, angry skin surrounding a shoddily sewn row of stitches. The sight of an infection worried Chris greatly, but he knew that it was to be expected. He'd seen a number of people die due to the same illness, but he had also seen a few survive with the right kind of treatment.
Chris listened to John breathe for a moment before standing to his fullest height and exiting the space, putting the wick out with a pinch of his fingers. If he were quick, he may be able to enlist the best help he knew—Uly, Gracie, and their medicine man friend, Spencialawbe, who was part slave, part Shawnee Indian—in as little as less than an hour.
He nearly toppled into a white form on his way toward the back door, and he gasped, feeling his heart skip a beat or two. "Auntie! You all right?" he asked, grasping her elbow and steadying her.
She took a deep mouthful of air then adjusted her long nightgown. "My stars, Christopher honey! You plannin' on scarin' the color right outta my hair by creepin' around like that? What're you doin'?" She let her stern face melt into a warm grin at her nephew's sheepish demeanor.
"I'm sorry, Auntie. I didn't mean to frighten you." Chris touched her shoulder apologetically, and frowned in concern. "Johnny's taken a turn for the worse, I'm afraid. I's just on my way out the door."
The woman clutched her chest. "Oh, sweet Jesus." She bit her bottom lip, looking as though she were a moment away from bursting into tears.
Chris quickly responded to reassure her. "I'm heading out to fetch some help. Spence and Uly know what to do for fevers. They just healed a man a couple weeks ago who'd nearly got his toe amputated on account of a hang nail."
"I sure hope they can help. I can't imagine John coming all this way," she said, her voice hitching painfully. Barbara smiled blearily and swallowed her emotions, embracing the boy hastily. "Go on, then."
Chris nodded and shoved his way out the door with a soundless heave, then took off running to the right, where the family's small barn stood. The familiar brown head of his horse Lucky peered over the stable door when he approached, and the animal looked hardly surprised by his owner's hurried bounding. "C'mon Luck!" the young man breathed, guiding his horse out of the barn and into the night.
The middle-aged gelding was slow at first, but Chris knew he picked up speed easily, especially once Lucky's hooves met with the firmly packed dirt road leading away from the farm.
Chris knew that if the master of the Longview plantation were to find out about him dropping into the slave quarters unannounced during the witching hour, he'd likely make the acquaintance of the bitter, cruel end of a shotgun. He tethered Lucky in a thicket just outside the latticed gate surrounding Henry Longview's fat tobacco fields, then hopped over the wooden fence toward the small shack where Ulysses shared his living space with his sister and another older man, Dennis, who the two young slaves had adopted a relationship with similar to that of a father.
The boy slinked up to the entrance of the structure and rapped gently against the thin-paneled wood, ignoring the anxious thrum of his heartbeat to listen for any sign of stirring inside.
He hid around the corner, just as he heard the scuffling of booted feet on the timber floor and the squeak of rusty hinges when the door swung open. "Who dat?" came the deep, irritated voice of Dennis, and the man peered around for a moment until Chris revealed himself. "Dat you, Chris?" asked the lanky slave, who squinted into the darkness.
The boy nodded solemnly. "Yes, sir."
"What you doin'ere in th' middle o'the night, Chris?" Dennis' frown cut a slice down his forehead.
"I've come callin' for Uly and Spence. My cousin come back from the War, but he's awfully sick with fever."
Dennis studied him a moment, then turned his head. "Say, Uly! Wake up, son!" The man moved so that Chris was able to come into the small room. Just inside was the lumpy bed that the siblings shared, and the two inhabitants were awakening and rubbing their sleepy eyes.
Uly ran a hand over his closely cropped hair and down his face. "Chris? What's wrong?"
"John came back and he's got a fever. There's an infection in his wound, and I know you can heal 'im. I need you t'come with me."
"He come home a'ready?" Uly pushed back the patchwork quilt and rose to his feet just as Dennis lit their small lantern.
Chris nodded, and then glanced around him to peer over at Gracie, whose long hair was pulled back into a tight, coiled braid. "'Lo, Gracie. Sorry 'bout this."
Gracie rolled her doe-like, brown eyes. "No apologizing, Chris."
Uly pulled his clothing on over his long underwear. "You go get Spence while I fetch my supplies."
Chris raced out of the shack and silently moved over to the barn about fifty feet in, where the medicine man resided. Rounding the large entry to the stables, the boy was startled by Spence's form sitting calmly on a bale of hay, smoking a long pipe. The smell of the harsh tobacco should have alerted Chris, but the whole place seemed to reek of the stuff, so he normally paid no mind.
"Christopher," Spence said in a slow drawl. "The spirits spoke to me earlier tonight. They said you would be coming."
Chris nodded. "Yes. My cousin is sick and I need your help."
The medicine man took a few more puffs off the pipe, letting clouds of smoke out in each direction—north, south, east, and then west—before moving from his position on the bale. "Infection?" Spence inquired, and Chris shook his head in amusement. He always knew.
"Mm-hmm. Wound in his side ain't doin' well."
"I'll bring the sage, tobacco, and bark."