Authors: Eric Flint
Johnson went back to staring at the nearby wall of the barn. No reason to, really, since nothing hung on that wall but some half-rusted old tools that nobody had used in years.
“All right,” he said finally. “I’m willing to give it a try. Not that I really have much choice anyway.”
Sam nodded. “Good. I’ve already set it up at the other end. In fact, Henry told me he’d have the money ready, if you agreed. Soon as I get there, I’ll have it sent. It’ll be fifteen thousand dollars, to start.”
That was enough to yank Johnson’s eyes from the wall. “
What kind of darkie has—”
“The richest darkie in the world,” Sam replied coldly. “Anywhere in North America, anyway. Take it or leave it, Dick.”
The senator seemed more bemused than ever. “Oh, I’ll take it. I surely will. But still—”
He shook his head again. “Like I said, what’s the world coming to?”
Sam had already given whatever good answer he had to that, so he just shrugged. “I’ll be on my way, then.”
“Sam Hill, if you will!” Johnson seized Sam by the arm and half dragged him out of the barn. “This calls for a drink of whiskey!”
Sam put up something of a protest.
As they rode away from Blue Spring Farm, in midafternoon, Chester asked him, “You going to make it through the rest of the day, Mr. Sam?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Just wondering. You might want to put your feet in the stirrups, then.”
New Antrim, Arkansas
AY 24, 1824
“This is the Little Rock,” announced the middle-aged Cherokee who’d escorted Sheffield Parker and his folks up the Arkansas River. There was a hint of a sly smile on his face. “Be careful. It’s full of Christians.”
Sheff ’s mother eyed the Indian skeptically but didn’t say anything. His uncle just grinned, even though normally he’d have taken umbrage, as devout as he was. For whatever reason, Sheff ’s uncle and the Cherokee had gotten along quite well on the trip upriver.
“I thought it was called New Antrim,” Sheff ’s sister said, half complainingly.
The Cherokee’s smile widened, just a bit. “Depends who you ask. We Cherokee call it the Little Rock.” He pointed to a rock formation not far from the pier the steamboat was approaching. “Got the name from that. Goes back quite a ways. When Patrick Driscol bought the area from a St. Louis speculator by the name of Russell, he named it New Antrim. Most of the white folks here use that name, too.”
The smile widened still further. Sheff couldn’t resist the tease. “So then, what do black folks call it?”
“Most all of them just call it Driscoltown. Though you’ll also hear ‘Driscolburg’ and ‘Driscolville.’ Seeing as how you black folks make up almost three out of four people living here, but can’t seem to agree on the details, I imagine it’ll eventually just get known as Driscol.”
By now, the smile was on the edge of being an outright grin. “ ’Course, you’ll have to wait until Driscol dies. He’ll skin you alive, he hears you call it that.”
Sheff studied the town the steamboat was approaching. He was impressed by the size of it, even though it didn’t approach the standards of his native Baltimore. But it was far grander than anything he’d expected to see way out here on the frontier, beyond the limits of the United States. When they’d reached Cincinnati, Salmon Brown had told him it had fifteen thousand residents. From what he could see, Sheff was pretty sure New Antrim was even bigger.
Quite a bit bigger, in fact, at least in terms of the number of people. The houses here were a lot more crowded together than they’d been in Cincinnati. That town had been populated mainly by prosperous white mechanics and merchants. This one, even if it didn’t seem to be as beat up as the freedmens’ quarter in Baltimore, was obviously a lot poorer than Cincinnati. Although it was hard to tell, really. Most of the construction was new and raw, with nothing much in the way of frills. The people living inside those mostly log-and-wattle dwellings might be in better shape than the houses themselves.
The Cherokee confirmed his guess a moment later. “They took the first census just five months ago. The Little Rock’s got just over twenty-eight thousand people in it. ’Bout twenty thousand of them are black, like you. Another five thousand or so are white people. The rest—”
No question about it. That
a grin. “Are crazy Indians like me.”
Sheff ’s sister had the tactlessness of most eight-year-olds. “Why are you crazy? Don’t really seem like it.”
“Dinah!” exclaimed their mother. She smacked her daughter on the back of her head. “Mind your manners!”
The Cherokee’s grin never faded, though. “Bean’t no worse than what most Cherokees call me, Missus Parker. Considerable better, in fact.” To Dinah, he said: “ ’Course I’m crazy, girl. Why else would a Cherokee live in a place like this? When I could be doing exciting things like chasing deer in the rain?”
He looked away from her, bestowing the grin on the town. They were almost at the pier, by now.
“Don’t bother me. There’s enough other Cherokees feel the same way I do, that I never lack for company. Quite a few Creeks, too. And I do declare I think we’re looking to outnumber the other Indians, you give it maybe ten or twenty years.”
A deafening blast from the steamboat’s whistle made Sheff jump a little.
“Well, here we are.” The steamboat was being tied up to the wharf while a small crew of men moved a ramp toward the side of the boat. Two other men emerged from a door in the side of a large building next to the pier.
They were both black, as were all the men moving the ramp. But the two newcomers were wearing green uniforms.
Sheff had heard rumors about those uniforms. These were men in the Arkansas Army. It was real!
Some of his excitement must have shown. The old Indian chuckled softly. “Yep, that’s them, all right. The Confederate Army. Arkansas Chiefdom, anyway.”
“What are they doing here?” asked Sheff ’s mother.
The Cherokee sucked his teeth for a moment. “I guess you could call it recruitment.”
Sheff ’s mother immediately frowned. “I don’t want my boy signing up for no army!”
The Cherokee smiled again. But said nothing.
Less than an hour later, sitting behind his mother on a stool in a large office in New Antrim’s largest bank, Sheff was mightily confused about most everything. But he understood why the old man had smiled.
“It’s not fair!” his mother exclaimed. The words were half a protest, half a wail.
The man sitting on the opposite side of the biggest desk Sheff had ever seen just shrugged his shoulders. “No, I suppose not. But what’s ‘fair’ got to do with anything, Mrs. Parker? You wanted your freedom, and you got it. But what ‘freedom’ means, right now, is the freedom to starve.”
Sheff was too fascinated with the man himself to pay much attention to his words. His name was Henry Crowell, nothing spectacular. But to Sheffield Parker he was a living, breathing dragon, testifying in person that this new fantasy world was real.
First, because he was black.
Second, because he was the biggest man Sheff had ever seen.
Third, because he was wearing fancier-looking clothes than anything Sheff had ever seen anyone wear except a few of the richest white men in Baltimore.
Finally—most glorious of all—because he was the
of the bank.
Well, half of it, anyway. From what Sheff had been able to understand of the man’s introductory remarks, the other half was apparently owned by the same Patrick Driscol who’d become a mysterious legend to Sheff.
“It’s not fair!” Sheff ’s mother repeated, trying, this time, for more in the way of sternness rather than simple misery.
Next to her, Sheff ’s uncle shrugged. “I don’t really mind, Lemon.”
Mrs. Parker swiveled her head to glare at her brother. “So, fine. You’re a full-growed man, Jem. What about my little boy?”
The man behind the desk chuckled, causing his immense chest to ripple the fancy cloth. “Don’t look so ‘little’ to me, ma’am. He’s not too tall, but he’s powerful wide in the shoulders.”
Now she glared at the banker. “It isn’t fair!”
Crowell sighed and sat up straighter in his chair. Then, planting two huge hands on the desk, he leaned forward and spoke softly. Softly, but very firmly.
“Mrs. Parker, there is no magic here in Arkansas. ’Less you believe in the voudou business, but not even Marie Laveau claims she can conjure up food and shelter out of spiderwebs. You came here with nothing. No money, no tools beyond a few knives and such, no capital, no livestock, not much at all beyond the clothes on your backs—and those, meaning no offense, you couldn’t sell even if you wanted to. They’re not far removed from rags.”
Sheff ’s mother set her jaws. “We was poor to begin with. Then, what with havin’ to leave Baltimore so sudden…”
“I am not
you, Mrs. Parker. Just pointing out the facts of life. How do you propose to survive while you start making a living?”
She started to say something, but Crowell cut her off.
“Never mind that. ‘Survive’ isn’t the word I meant. I don’t doubt you could ‘survive,’ but you’d be so dirt poor you’d be nothing but an anchor dragging behind this community. We don’t need that, Mrs. Parker. The last thing Arkansas needs is dead weight. Meaning no offense, but that’s what dirt-poor people are. Dead weight.”
He pushed himself back from the chair a little. “Patrick established that as the very first rule, here—and all of us in the Iron Battalion agreed with him. Black people are welcome in Arkansas, but they’ve got to pull their weight. That’s the main reason we set up this bank in the first place, back then. We’ll loan people money to get started, but they’ve got to put up collateral. And if they’ve got nothing but able-bodied men in the family, then those men have to agree to serve a term of enlistment in the army.”
“What if we were just women?” his mother asked, her eyes narrowing. “Did you and this fancy ‘Mr. Patrick’ set up a whorehouse, too? Loan us money if we put up our cunts for collateral?”
Uncle Jem winced. “Lemon!”
But all Crowell did was chuckle again. “No, Mrs. Parker. Patrick and I are running no brothels in this town. There are a couple, I’m told, but they’re strictly private enterprise. To answer your question, if the borrowers are females only, we’ll accept a job in one of the local workshops as collateral. But the terms aren’t as good.”
the terms, Mr. Crowell?” Sheff ’s uncle spoke a bit hastily, probably to keep his sister from another outburst.
The big banker looked at him. “Good as you could ask for. We’ll loan any family three hundred dollars for every man who enlists, two hundred for every woman or boy or girl in a workshop. The interest is five percent, compounded annually. The loan has to be paid back monthly—but we’ll waive the interest for the whole family as long as at least one man is serving in the colors. And for every man who completes a term of service satisfactorily, we’ll knock a percentage point off the interest.”
He glanced at Sheff ’s mother and sister, and then at Sheff. “In your case, that means we’ll loan you a thousand dollars even. No interest accumulates as long as either you or young Sheffield is still in the colors. Once both of you have finished your terms of duty—assuming you were discharged honorably—we’ll start charging you three percent on whatever the balance is. The truth is, you can’t find a better loan anywhere. Either here or in the United States.”
Sheff had no idea if he was telling the truth or not, since what he knew about banking was that…well, it was a white man’s business. He’d never known a black man who even went to a bank, much less owned one.
From the dubious expression on her face, it was obvious his mother was just as ignorant. But his uncle seemed satisfied. Not, probably, because he actually knew anything. But just because, as with Sheff himself, he was inclined to trust Mr. Crowell.
Crowell was famous, too, after all. And if most of that fame was due to his horrible mutilation, there wasn’t actually any sign of it on the man himself. Not visibly, anyway, covered with that fancy clothing. Maybe he was a little fatter than he would have been otherwise. But it was hard to know. Men that big usually ran to fat, some, once they got a little older.
Sheff thought he was a nice man, though. Not that it really mattered. Even if Crowell had been poison mean, Sheff would have been inclined to take his word for something. The man was a
The only black banker Sheff had ever heard of.
“We’ll do it,” said Sheff ’s uncle firmly. “Be quiet, Lemon. You’ve had your say, and you ain’t my mother, even if you are older than me.”
His uncle smiled, and nodded toward Sheff. “And so what, girl? I mean,
at him. You tried to stop your son, he’d just run away and enlist anyhow.”
Sheff tried to look innocent when his mother gave him a sharp glance. It wasn’t easy. He’d spent a good part of the past half hour trying to decide between two different ways he could run away and join the army. Daytime or nighttime.
There were advantages and disadvantages, either way. Daytime would be harder to make his getaway without his mother catching him, but he could probably enlist on the spot. Wherever the spot was. Nighttime, he’d have to wander around some in the dark.
“Would you do that, Sheff?” his mother demanded.
“No, ma’am. ’Course not.”
She just rolled her eyes and threw her hands up in defeat.