Just in case you need to catch up:
“I’m sorry Paul. What would you have me do?” At least she was dressed with the clothes we stole off the line. We sat in the shadows of the wharf across from the ship, Sherry perched on a keg of rum.
“Din’t cross yo mind gist take a poke and yo meal and leave well nuff alone?” He glanced from one of us to the other in fascination. “I don’t rightly know what yor ‘spectin’ me to do with her. Shor you noticed she’s white.”
I had to board the ship before the crew got back from their night ashore. One or two men I might sway with my eyes, but not a ship full at once–especially not now with my concentration shot all to hell. Why couldn’t I leave her? Many young girls had trod that path before her and many would come after. Why this one?
“Did you leave the money like I told you?” I immediately regretted my words. “I’m sorry, I know you did. I’m frettin’ over every little thing just now. What?”
Paul’s lip quirked up at the edge. “Yor fine talk seems to be slippin’ a mite, Massa Tom.”
“I am no man’s master! I’m a poor orphaned Texas boy, who tried to make out as best he could and ended up as…” my hands flew about like angry hornets, “this-thing-that I’ve become. I want her to have a chance. Is that wrong?”
“Nothin’ be wrong wit what yo done or wit you, Sa. Takes her wit you, she a perty little thing. You two makes a fine pair!”
“No. Being close to her stretches my will to breaking.” I read in his eyes he didn’t understand and I didn’t have time to explain. Mariska’s fate hung in the balance. I had to go, Sherry to stay, simple as that. “Paul, I got no one to send her to, no one I trust but you. I can plant a seed in her mind; she’ll believe what I tell her. I could tell her you were her Daddy’s man before the war. He died fighting and her Ma of a broken heart soon after his passing. Might some even be true, she said her Ma was dead.” I sucked up what courage I had. “She’s virgin still Paul, how could I leave her in a whorehouse?”
“I can’t go back to Kentuk, but I was plannin’ on me a hoss farm, weren’t sure where. Didn’t much care, long as it weren’t there. Be a hard road, lots a trouble, a colored man with a white woman. Helps some she ain’t but…sixteen ya say? Helps I’m old ‘nuff to be her pappy.” He rubbed his hand on the back of his neck.
The thought struck so hard it blinded me. I leapt to my feet, which spooked Merry’ causing her to shy, but she settled quick enough. Scavenging through my saddle bags, I pulled out a pouch and an oilskin parcel. Somewhere deep inside I’d always known I’d never go back. I found the stub of a pencil and began to scrawl my name.
“You got a middle name Paul? You got your emancipation papers?”
“I gots my army discharge sayin I free and served with ‘stinction.”
“Give ’em over!” He went to Silas and pulled a leather wallet from the depths of his pack and handed it to me. Paul James Monroe: served with distinction under Colonel John Sherman Forrester, Third Cavalry, discharged tenth of May, eighteen hundred and sixty-four.
“As soon as the businesses open, you take Sherry and find a clerk’s office and get these filed legal.” I turned to the girl who sat on the barrel, exactly where we placed her well over an hour before. “Sherry, can you read and write?”
“I reckon so, Ma was a schoolmarm. I ain’t good with ‘rithmatic though.”
“Come here, girl.” She rose and came to my side. Fearing for my control if she touched me, I was forced to take a step back. “Look at me and listen.”
She raised her eyes to mine.
“You are Sherry Thornton, niece of Thomas Nathaniel Thornton senior. Your Daddy was Michael Thornton, his brother. Both your Daddy and cousin Tom died at Antietam, your Mama later on. How did your Mama die, Sherry?”
“Fever took her.”
“Fever took your Mama and you found out this deed had been signed over to you. The farm is yours but only if you keep your Daddy’s man, Paul Monroe, with you as long as he draws breathe. He’s been with you since you were little. He takes good care of you.”
“Paul takes good care of me.”
“That’s right, Sugar. You take these papers to the clerk when they open, you hear me?”
“Repeat what all I told you.”
When she finished reciting word for word what I had told her, I sighed and rubbed my eyes. My hand came away wet…and red.
Paul handed me a kerchief. “It’s always been about the blood, Sa. Don’t fret, I’ll keep her. We’ll git to yor…where da devil is the farm?”
My laugh was shaky. “Texas. A tiny little settlement called Tyler. Ain’t been nobody there that I know of, for years. I expect it will need some work.”
I handed him the parcel and the pouch of gold eagles the general had left with me for travel, bribes or whatever else might come up on my journey. I was pretty sure this wasn’t what he had in mind. The thought brought a smile to my face. “I can’t thank you enough, Paul. This will see you for a spell… if nobody knocks you in the head.”
“I made it through 35 years as a slave and 4 years of war. Ya thinks a’body be sneakin’ up on me now?” Peering in the poke, Paul swallowed hard, reached in and handed a few coins back. “Never been a greedy man, Sa. Ain’t got no call to start now.”
“You best go to the main street, find a bench and sit in plain sight, won’t do to be seen skulking around with a white girl in tow.” I slipped the coins in my pocket and offered my hand.
“I sho glad I met up wit’cha, Sa.”
“And I you Paul.”
He rolled his eyes.
“By the time we dock, I’ll be swearing like an old salt.” I turned and ran with my true speed to the slip and the Annabel Lea, not daring to look back.
Boarding proved easier than I thought, even the creak and groan of the gangplank roused no one. Either there was no guard or he was asleep on the job. The hold was piled high with cotton bales which helped dispel the musky odor of tar, damp wood and rodent excrement. My accommodations, about what I had expected from the general. The crate marked Remains housed a pine coffin filled with earth. Did he know no better, was he poking fun or just the bastard I knew him to be? His sick sense of humor or bad planning didn’t matter now. The sun was on the rise. I buried the coins in the soil, to be safe, then lay upon my earthen bed and pulled the pine covers over my head.
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