Benjamin January 4 - Sold Down The River

Benjamin January 4 - Sold Down The River by Barbara Hambly

Book: Benjamin January 4 - Sold Down The River by Barbara Hambly Read Free Book Online
Authors: Barbara Hambly
people were the pattern he had come here to learn, January thought. The warp and the weft of the lives whose telltale break, somewhere, would point the way to the killer whose deed would condemn them all.
    And yet looking at them, it was hard to remember that one of these was a killer and a calculating despoiler. All he felt in his heart was a curious and profound sadness, rooted in a darkness his memory couldn't pierce.
    They were still singing when he left.

FIVE
     
    There were twenty-five men in the main gang, including three drivers: Ajax, Herc, and Dice. Two of the men, Ram Joe and Boaz, were out sick, Boaz with pneumonia and Ram Joe snakebit. In January's opinion at least three others working in the field should have been laid up as well, for he heard the hum of pneumonia in Lago's breathing, and Java and Dumaka both were running fevers. But the most that would happen with Fourchet was that the men were put back as trimmers, working behind the cutters to lop the cane-tops and slash off the leaves. Of the four men whose cabin he shared, three-Gosport, Quashie, and Kadar-were in the main gang as well.
    “Whoo, lord!”
    
     Quashie exclaimed, as they left the cabin in predawn mist and cold, and held up his hand as if shielding his eyes. “We got us a bozal here! Right off the boat, looks like!” He was the thin tall man January had seen at the ring-shout last night, holding hands with the purple calico girl. Ajax the driver and his wife Hope-she of the nine children-had kept their cabin open long into the night, people bringing in food to share after the shout, but January hadn't seen Quashie or the girl there. The young man had not returned to their own crowded dwelling until nearly dawn. “It ain't a tar baby, it's a tar daddy!” he told January. “You so black when you come outside the chickens think it's night again, go in to roost!”
    “Don't matter none,” replied January goodnaturedly. “I'm just thinkin' how you so yellow when you step out at night, all the roosters get up an' crow, wake up everybody in the place.” He was tired, for he'd sat up long at Ajax the driver's last night, meeting as many people as he could, and afterward had walked down to the bank above the landing in the pitch-black fog, to tie a black bandanna to the arm of Michie Demosthenes the Oak, knowing he'd be too weary to do so in the morning.
    And he'd been right.
    Quashie contemplated him for a moment, hearing the challenge in his words. Then he said, “And ugly!” He cringed exaggeratedly as they walked along between the rows of shabby wooden cabins toward the open ground that lay between Thierry's house and the mill. “I never seen a man so ugly! Your whole family so ugly, I hear there's a law in town against more'n three of you walkin' down the street at once.”
    “Now, I don't know nuthin' bout your family,” returned January mildly, as they grouped around the two-wheeled rice cart, set up in front of the line of plantation shops just upstream of the mill. “But you so ugly I hear you was five years old 'fore you realized your name wasn't 'Damn!'”
    As a matter of fact, neither man was ugly-January had heard himself described as good-looking and Quashie was handsome-but the rules of the game had to be observed.
    “Yeah, and your mama ugly, too,” retorted Quashie, as the men and women around them laughed, holding out their bowls for Minta the cook's helper to fill. “And fat. Your mama so fat when I hump her the other day, I had to roll over two times 'fore I rolled off her.”
    “Oh, that was you?” January raised his eyebrows in mock enlightenment. This was an old game that wasn't quite a game, and in his childhood years at school, he'd been called hulking and black and dirty, and told he looked like a field hand or a newly-arrived African by sharper-tongued opponents than Quashie. “I wondered about that. She said at first she thought she been stung in the ass by a mosquito. Spent half the night lookin' around

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