A sudden cry jarred me from my thoughts.
“Please, Masa. I have my ticket,” a man’s voice rang out.
I turned my mare in the direction of the plea. Rounding the corner, I witnessed three men hovering over a helpless black man on his knees. My eyes narrowed in on the captors, and I recognized Rufus, the overseer from the Barry Plantation, along with his two minions, Dave and Yates. They pushed and taunted the kneeling man.
Rufus laughed, jabbing the slave in the ribs with the butt of his whip. “Nigger, I didn’t see any ticket. Did you boys?”
Rufus was a whole five feet tall, a hundred twenty pounds soaking wet. He walked around with his chest poked out like he was a big man and always had a lot to say. Little did he know people laughed behind his back at what a small, weak man he was. I referred to it as small man syndrome; without his two sidekicks he was powerless, and he knew it.
The men looked up in surprise as I edged my horse into the clearing. A burst of adrenaline kicked in and fear removed my inhibitions of, one—I’m a woman alone; two—I’m outnumbered.
I jumped from my saddle, “What’s going on here?” I demanded, eyeing up the situation. Shifting my eyes to the slave, I recognized him to be Grey, the head slave from the Armstrong Plantation. A nasty gash above his left eye caused it to droop; blood oozed from his mouth and soiled the front his shirt. Grey was a big, strapping slave, but against a white man, he was defenseless.
Gritting my teeth, I turned my attention to the men. “Well, answer me!”
Rufus sneered and turned his scheming blue eyes on me. “What’s it to you, woman? You need to learn your place and stay out of men’s business.”
Laughing, they turned their attention back to Grey, disregarding my existence. I heard the crunching of bone as Rufus used his heel to grind the slave’s hand into the ground and the injured man let out an agonizing cry.
A rage of injustice wallowed up inside of my chest and took over as I flew at Rufus, beating him with my fist. “How dare you! You monster!”
Yates peeled me off of Rufus, securing my arm and restricting my movement. His face, inches from mine, implied his warning. My nostrils flared at the offensive body odor seeping from him and the overpowering scent of rotten teeth. His lewd eyes trailed over my body, quickening my heartbeat. My breakfast came back up, lodging in my throat as I began to panic. What had I done?
Yates laughed at the visible panic that filled me and he released my arm. My feet instinctively drew me back, and I scrambled to put distance between us. Tripping over my own feet, I landed in a heap on the ground. Rufus’s evil eyes ate through my flesh, and I cringed at the repulsiveness of him. Dave licked his lips as he adjusted his belt on his too-small trousers. The belt disappeared under his large stomach that hung over his non-existent waistline. “Boss, what do you say we have some fun?”
My body started to shake. Had my acting without regards to my own safety caught up with me? I tried to stagger to my feet while looking around for an escape route.
Grey rose up behind them and with his good hand sent a blow to the side of Rufus’s skull, sending him sailing through the air.
In my daze, I was oblivious to the arrival of help until Bowden Armstrong and his friend Knox rode into the middle of the chaos.
Quickly sliding from their horses, they took over and everything that happened next was but a blur. Punches met their mark, eliciting cries from their victims. Rufus lay in a heap, where Bowden had sent him with a hard kick to his scrawny backside. Knox had the fat one, Dave, in a headlock and sent a blow to his head. Yates circled Bowden, who had always been swift on his feet. He managed to close the distance in a split second and landed Yates on his back.
“You all right, Miss Willow?” Bowden’s face showed concern as he offered me a hand up.
Refusing the help, I rose to my feet, smoothing my skirt. Sending a stony glare at my childhood enemy, I said, “I assure you I’m fine, Mr. Armstrong.”
Rufus and his goons hightailed it out of here as Knox pulled up beside us beaming a grin at their victory. “You all right, Willow?”
“Yes, Knox, thanks for your help.” I reached up patting his arm.
His towering stature overshadowed me. His shoulders were broad as a house and at first glance, he gave off an intimidating appearance but his whiskey-brown eyes were warm and kind with a side of mischievousness.
Bowden rolled his eyes in annoyance at my rudeness but turned his attention to Grey, who stood cradling his broken hand. “Grey, you need to go on home and get that tended to. I will pay the Barry Plantation a visit and speak to Mr. Barry about his overseer.”
“Yes, Masa.” Grey smiled at me with gratitude, “Thank you, Miss.”
“We helped each other, Grey, so I, too, owe you a thank-you.” My face split into a wide grin.
He reclaimed his ruined straw hat from the ground along with his torn ticket. Grey turned and headed for home.
I nodded my head at Knox and Bowden. “Thank you.”
Bowden was brave enough to stir the angry hornet’s nest of emotions boiling inside of me. “Next time you should think of the outcome before you get involved in an outnumbered situation. What if we hadn’t shown up? “
He had to! He couldn’t control himself, could he?
“I can handle myself, Bowden.” My dark green eyes challenged him to say another word.
Never one to back down, Bowden replied bluntly, “It sure didn’t seem that way. From now on, let me handle my property.”
I was aware Bowden wasn’t a cruel plantation owner, but simply a businessman who followed the ways the South had done things for hundreds of years.
Grabbing my horse’s reins, I swung myself up in one fluid movement, unaware of the peering eyes watching from afar at the scene playing out. Having to have the last word, I smugly let one last statement fly over my shoulder before I rode off. “Horses are property, Mr. Armstrong. Humans aren’t!”