The House of Everard: part four
“Sir,” Joab said, “this is the law of the land. I’ve done as right by you as I can, but I am not beholden to you. I don’t mean to be unjust in my dealings with any man, but I have a living to make. I am my own property, and what I know, and what I can make with my hands, those things are mine. I won’t leave you if you pay me fairly, but I have a right, sir.”
Thomas stood a few feet back from Joab.
The four remaining, of the slaves he had once owned, were not his property. No one had offered Richard compensation for this loss. He had bargained on fidelity, not to himself, nor to the Everard name, but to the land, their only home…and his hour had been stayed, while his feet stumbled on rocky ground, until he had landed level with them, Joab and Thomas and Shad. Only their fear of uncertain prospects had given him a claim on their service.
Naomi, Thomas’s wife, had not come today with the others, but these three bore testament to the different fates that would befall them as free men. Richard was most jealous of Joab, to whom he had given so much latitude. Joab had no wife. He was known throughout the county for his gift, that natural-born affinity for the growing of tobacco. He was Richard’s age. And Richard was fifty-five. He knew anyone would rather hire Joab, and give responsibility to Joab, than hire Richard Everard, the drunk. He looked at Thomas, younger than Joab; not, Richard knew, particularly an ally of Joab’s.
“Mr. Everard, sir,” Thomas said, “my wife Naomi, she got herself a job up to Paducah, being cook for a widow lady, Mrs. Lerner.”
“And is Mrs. Lerner taking the both of you?”
“She don’t know me yet. She didn’t ask for no married cook. But I can do any kind of work, any place, if Mrs. Lerner don’t have no use for me.”
Shad, always silent, might have a great deal of calculation behind his eyes, or none at all. He was half-Irish; he might easily pass, if he made his way to the city. He had done only menial work for Richard. Likely, he would fall into the ranks of itinerant laborers.
“Shad, stay or go. You know they may sell the farm from under our feet any day. I have nothing to give you.”
It was nothing that he’d gone over to Paducah. All his legal troubles, all his dealings with the bank, had taken him to the county seat…and this was only a substitution, which Verbena would not seek to understand. He had kept himself sober for four days. He could, at this extremity, beat the devil in a game of close reasoning. For as near as made no difference to thirty years, Richard had drunk himself to sleep at night. Now, his barns empty, his fields fallow, his slaves’ cabins unoccupied, he could walk the land, and danger and salvation were alike to him. But for four nights, he had survived until morning. He had done it for his son, because he’d known they would have to take lodgings…in a city where his failures were unknown, where he hoped to be given a job.
The House of Everard
(2017, Stephanie Foster)