Livingston Plantation, 1851

On schedule, Charles Hendricks’s private carriage rolled down the lane and through the gates of Livingston Plantation a few hours after sunset.

The man on the ridge leaned forward, arms resting on the neck of his mount, awaiting the outcome of his earlier sabotage of the carriage. If all played out as planned, Hendricks would take his last breath tonight.

He’d cleanse the earth of the Hendricks and Shaw bloodlines once and for all, breaking the curse Olivia Shaw had placed on his family all those years ago. Even the hangman’s noose hadn’t snuffed out her witchery.

He inhaled deeply of the cigar clutched between his teeth, the hot, sweet smoke slithering down his throat to circle in his lungs. Removing the cigar with a gloved hand, he puffed out billowy gray rings of smoke. The rings floated into the starless darkness above, shifting form before vanishing into the autumn night.

Below, the carriage began to sway violently from side to side. A warmth radiated through his chest as he watched Hendricks fight to regain control. Before his hungry eyes, the moment he’d waited for played out. The watcher lurched forward as the carriage rolled over, eager to see its demise. 

The piercing squeals of the horse shattered the quiet of the night as it went down thrashing. In the wreckage, the carriage lantern set fire to the surrounding grass and brushwood. The man sat mesmerized by the beauty of the flames as the fire took life, the drumming in his chest elevating to a roar in his ears. Squinting past the glow of the blaze, he located the form of Hendricks, pinned beneath the carriage.

The watcher released a long, slow breath of satisfaction. He’d put his plan in motion; he would become master of everything the Hendrickses owned, and he’d incinerate anything or anyone standing in the way.

His brother would delight in his achievement. Revenge would be theirs.

With a jerk of the reins and a kick of his heels, he dug his spurs into the sides of the horse, and it leapt forward, bound for home.

* * *

Some time later, the man veered his mount off the main road and bent low under the hanging vines of the cypress trees. He guided the horse onto the serpentine path on the other side.

The trail ended at an untamed, moon-drenched meadow. The gray, weather-beaten barn’s shadow devoured the smaller building next to it—a windowless one-room cabin suffocating in the entanglement of evergreen vines. Dismounting at the barn, he lifted the board barring the doors. Groaning in protest, the doors swung open. He lit the lantern hanging on a beam near the entrance, the jagged yellow glow the lantern cast elongating his dark silhouette across the barn floor.

Whimpering to the right made him spin on his worn heels to face the handful of slaves he’d taken from the freed Negro’s plantation a few miles over. A sinister smile crept over his unshaven face. The man reveled in the sight of the slaves’ bulging eyes as they sat huddled together with their hands chained above their heads.

Filthy animals! Damn Negroes, going around thinking they can sow the same ground as the white men. The rich Negro got what he deserved.

The drunken singing of his father floated in from outside.

Grumbling to himself, the man urged the horse into a stall. He shoved at the horse’s hindquarters to get by the animal, and removed the saddle. The horse nudged him from behind as he slung the saddle over the side of the stall. Cursing, he drove a fist against the side of the creature’s head, then kicked the gate to the stall closed and left the barn, barring the doors shut behind him.

He found his half-naked father riding his horse up to the cabin. A bottle of whiskey swung in his hand as he continued to belt out a tune. “Useless bastard,” the man said, storming toward him.

He pulled his father off the horse and slung him over his shoulder, grimacing at the overpowering stench of body odor, whiskey, and jasmine. Women and gambling were his religion. Kicking the cabin door open, he carried the unconscious man to the far corner of the room and deposited him in a heap on the bed there. Straightening, he peered down at his pathetic excuse of a father. 

One quick slash of his throat, and the burden of him would be gone, the constant gibbering in his head slowed to say. End his life. Make him pay for what they did to you.

“Silence!” He cuffed his own ears with his hands as he moved away. He slammed the door, and it shook on its rusted hinges. His father’s weakness for women sickened him. Had his mother taught him nothing? Women were the demise of all men.

He lowered himself into a chair in front of the fireplace. Pulling off his boots, he stretched his legs out in front of him. The throbbing in his right foot grew worse with each passing year. Damn Virginia and that blizzard! It had claimed three of his toes. Turning to the warmth of the crackling fire, he slid his hat down over his eyes and tried to shut out the grating of his father’s drunken snores.

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