Tony Small could pass as handsome in any society. About five feet, ten inches tall, taller than most South Carolina men, he had enough height and weight to convey a commanding presence in the company of blacks or whites, even for a young man in difficult situations. But only to a point. Who he was didn’t matter to most white folks. What he was—a black man—to all white folks was all that mattered to them. There were limits beyond his control to both reason and friendship, but, like his father, Tony was not resigned to that fact.
He rode Eagle to the barn, took off his bridle and sat down for a long time, thinking about the good feeling he had earlier that morning and how quickly he lost it. After a while he walked back toward his cabin. Without a word, he handed the sweet grass to his mother. She knew something happened but didn’t ask. He turned and walked away.
“Now, gitty up, Tony,” he said to himself as he left his mother. “Tread hard on that ole rattler. Let’s go see what extra chores Miss Maggie has for me today.”
Maggie McKelvey was again standing in the door of the brick house, the way grandmothers do when they somehow sense that someone is coming. No visitor ever surprised her. She had her hand on the door frame to keep it from closing shut all the way, but closed enough to keep most of the flies out—one fly, in particular, the size of a small roach. She acted as if she had not heard about Tony’s row with her overseer, but the overseer had already sent somebody to tell her, to beat Tony to the draw, and Tony knew it.
Shaking his head to clear it and squinting his eyes in the late morning sun, Tony stood below the steps leading to the porch in front of the door, just as he did earlier that morning.
“Eagle and I didn’t get over to Belvidere this morning, Miss Maggie. I didn’t want to hurt his hoof any. We didn’t see anybody as far as we went.
“Seems like lots of white folks have gone from around here. If they were here abouts, they’d be coming to ride Eagle this morning. Sometimes looks like everybody living twenty miles of here wants to ride. Even folks who just own land with no house on it come by because they hear how good Eagle rides. Lofty, Fish Eye, and Iron Side, too.”
Miss Maggie let him talk on to keep the subject of the overseer from coming up, but she wasn’t smiling.
“One of the Sinkler brothers came by last week, but I ain’t seen him lately. I asked him where the name of his place Belvidere came from, and Mr. James said he didn’t really know, just came with the land when they got it.”
“Be good to all our guests, Tony—I know you will,” Miss Maggie said, all too familiar with Tony’s love of names for everybody and everything. She turned to go back indoors.
She looked back. “And especially if Captain Peter Gaillard comes over from The Rocks, or anybody from Walworth. You take good care of all of ‘em.” She then stopped, turned around and took a step or two on the porch, away from the door. She calmly watched the roach-sized fly zip inside before the door shut. She looked at Tony. She was dead serious.
“Your momma told me to be sure and tell you to watch out for that girl Ruth who’s always coming round here to see you all the way down from St. James Parish on the Santee. She’s like a heron that flies where it wants to. You’re free to go see her, but it’s dangerous for her to come to see you, you hear?
“Now I know you and Ruth are sweethearts, but Ruth’s not free like you and your siblings and your momma and daddy. Your momma’s just trying to be sure you two do the right thing and not just disappear in one of the huts or barns. Or get snatched up by a trader if you get too far afield. You could, you know. And I’m afraid my overseer would be glad to help. I hear white folks talking about you, saying you’re real uppity.”
Miss Maggie went on in a different, even harder tone. “I know you ain’t uppity, Tony, and I know you ain’t obnoxious, but I have to tell you to take care that girl always gets back to Mr. Snow. Do you hear me? You listening to me, Tony? She’s almost a runaway as it is now. She runs away whenever she’s criticized. I’d hate to see anybody hurt her.”
“I’ll do my best, Miss Maggie. She’s mighty head-strong”—and he suddenly lost even more of the good feeling he had earlier that morning from climbing his favorite tree by the Eutaw springs, laughing with his mother, riding Eagle, and thinking about the beauty of the Lowcountry, his garden, and the gigantic oaks near Charleston.
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