“Next we have numbahs twenty-six and twenty-seven,” the auctioneer announced in a deep Southern drawl, “and gentlemen these will be sold as a pair.”
The line of slaves moved down when the overseer pulled a young woman from the line. As a small boy moved forward to follow, the large man gave the child such a menacing look it stopped the poor boy in his tracks. The woman shook her head as if to say, ‘stay put,’ so the little boy stepped back, trusting his mother. The overseer glared at the boy and turned his hatred to the mother by twisting her arm behind her back and thrusting her toward the block. She stumbled as she stepped up, holding her injured arm in front of her.
“The female is twenty-four years old and her boy is eight years old.” The auctioneer read his notes as the overseer went back to the line and grabbed the boy, pushing him up the steps, into his mother. “The boy has had some limited training in the kitchen, since his mother was a kitchen mule. However it is believed he will best serve you in the field as he is well developed for his age.”
The boy moved behind his mother, shrinking from the overseer’s touch. She glanced down at her precious son, placing her arm around his shoulders. She then looked out over the heads of the men assembled for the auction, holding her head high and proud.
“Since they are being sold as a pair, I would like to start the bidding at two hundred….”
The auctioneer was cut off when the overseer jumped up on the block. He pushed the woman down to the floor and, in the process, knocked the young boy from the block. The child fell backwards hitting his head causing him to cry out. The overseer ignored the boy’s cry of pain, as he shoved the woman’s face to the floor.
“You best remember your place, mule. I’ll show you what happens with niggahs that get uppity with me.” The overseer drew back his hand to strike the woman as the crowd moved about impatiently.
“Damn it! That’s enough!” The auctioneer came walking over to stop the man from damaging the property.
“Three hundred dollars!” A shout came from the back stopping the overseer’s fist in midair.
The auctioneer took advantage of this reprieve and continued. “Do I hear more?” No one moved. He really wasn’t worried since the males were the property that most of the gentlemen were interested in and would bring the most money, so he ended the bidding quickly.
“Going once, going twice, sold for three hundred dollars!” The auctioneer looked up to see a tall, young man walk forward. He gaped as the man threw a bag of gold coins to him.
The overseer quickly forgot the woman and, jumping down from the block, pulled his whip from the clasp at his waist. “Boy! You had best get where you belong!” He pointed towards the line of slaves waiting to be auctioned.
It seemed as if the whole incident was scripted and he was a character in some play, for in every town he visited this scene was performed. As the cue came, he said his line.
“Sorry to disappoint you, but this boy is free.”
"A slave-holder's profession of Christianity is a palpable imposture. He is a felon of the highest grade. He is a man-stealer. It is of no importance what you put in the other scale."
Noah sat staring at the quote on the page in front of him. He ran his hand across it, still amazed that he had this book. Though the binding was broken and more than a few pages were loose, it was as prized a possession to him as his daddy’s saddle. It was the narrative of Frederick Douglass’ life.
Sighing, he closed the book. He tried to live his life as he thought both his father and Mr. Douglass would approve but it sometimes took its toll. When people looked at him they saw a prideful black man, he held his head high, looking defiantly into the eyes of his enemy. Outwardly, he maintained this posture but inside was turmoil. Sometimes the feelings of isolation and loneliness overwhelmed him. He wondered if he would ever find friends or a place to belong.
His mind wandered to the auction earlier. Remembering the looks on the crackers’ faces when he walked through the crowd, he chuckled. The reactions of the whites were always his favorite part of what he did. Actually second favorite. First had to be the faces of the slaves he freed.
His smile faded as he recalled how hostile the overseer had been. When Noah saw how the pig had treated that young woman, he’d come close to jumping him but he knew that would ruin his plans so he had clenched his fists and remained rooted to his spot.
Then after Noah made the purchase, he thought the overseer would attack him for sure but the auctioneer had actually intervened before the fat cracker pulled his whip on Noah. Being a businessman he was happy with the money and didn’t care who it came from. Noah knew that the more auctions he attended and the more slaves he purchased to free, someday he might get into the trouble he couldn’t get out of alone.
Born to hang, remember? He laughed.
Pulled from his reverie by the sounds outside, he walked over to the window. He watched the men, women and children going about their day. Women were shopping or stopping to chat; children were running, laughing and playing; men were working. People just like him, doing the exact same things he himself had done before. The one difference: they were white and he wasn’t
There wasn’t a soul down there that would talk to him, let alone be his friend and sometimes that weighed heavy. He sighed again and, looking down at the floor, decided to venture out.
He stepped down from the hotel steps into the sunlight. The fact that the manager gave him a room was amazing but Noah figured, the manager was like the auctioneer, money was money no matter who had it. He looked down the street and for a moment he thought to go back inside.
No, there ain’t no way you’re lettin’ these people do that to you, he thought. So he proceeded down the street concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. He nodded to a pair of women that looked over at him. They curled their lips into unladylike sneers. Noah would have laughed if it hadn’t been directed at him.
As he passed a boy sitting on the edge of the boardwalk, whittling, Noah smiled. In return, the boy scowled. Breathing deeply, Noah thought, I have as much right to be here as they do.
Continuing his journey he passed two large men standing in front of the saloon. One took a deep swig out of a whiskey bottle, not taking his eyes off Noah. The other spit tobacco towards Noah’s foot.
Sidestepping to prevent the disgusting wad from landing on his foot, Noah accidentally bumped a young girl. She took his hand.
“Excuse me sir, my sincerest apologies.”
Noah’s mind couldn’t formulate a response. This beautiful young lady was apologizing to him. Just as he regained his composure, he felt a stinging slap across his face.
“Why how dare you! Good Lord!” The indignant woman in front of Noah almost shook with rage. “Trying to take advantage of a helpless blind girl!”
Noah glanced at the girl, understanding why she hadn’t once looked at him and, thinking it better if he just remained silent, moved on. He saw the two men from in front of the saloon approach.
“Dear, are you alright?” The mother looked the girl up and down as if trying to find something wrong.
“Mother, I’m fine. Why are you making such a fuss?” The poor girl was confused.
“Did he hurt you?”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m fine!” Again her mother looked her over. Then, whirling around toward Noah, screamed at his retreating back.
“They should cage you like the animal you are!”
Noah, hearing the other townspeople agreeing, continued walking towards the edge of town, trying to keep the words from penetrating his thick skin. Maybe he should go back and collect his things. No, he’d always left towns of his own free will.
He had noticed from his window some sort of tent had been set up just passed the livery. If it was a carnival, it might take his mind off his surroundings. Glancing over his shoulder to see if he was being followed, he didn’t see where he was going when a hand on his chest stopped him. Reflexively, Noah reached for his whip.
“How do you do, sir?”
Noah looked down at a small, dark-skinned man. He wasn’t black but Noah knew he wasn’t white either. The man looked past Noah towards town. Glancing back, Noah saw that the two men were still following him.
“I am Richard.” Noah detected some type of accent but wasn’t sure since it was very subtle.
“Come. Allow Dominique to comfort you.” Richard held out a ticket.
Taking the ticket, Noah read ‘Dominique, the Beauty of Gypsy Dance.’ Looking from Richard to the tent and then back, he shrugged. Having nowhere else to go, he followed Richard in.
There were tables set up in a semicircle around a slightly raised platform. It reminded Noah of an auction block and he shook his head to clear it of the mental pictures. He looked around, noticing that all the tables were full. There were drinks being served by three young girls who looked to Noah to be around his age.
Too young to be doin’ this, he thought sadly. Realizing some of the men were glaring at him, he quickly looked around for a seat. One of the girls motioned him towards a small table at the side, away from the others. Seeing that there was only one chair at the table, he smiled as he walked over and took the seat. Soon the other men lost interest in him and went back to their drinking and conversations.
As Noah began to wonder when the show would start, he heard the three young men at the table in front of him talking about Dominique. The loudest was overweight, balding and sweating profusely. He was flanked by his two friends, who were both skinny with greasy black hair. All three appeared to have come straight from the fields not bothering to wash up.
“They say she’s the finest thing west of St. Louis,” the loud mouth said as he wiped his brow with his sleeve. Noah, observing the man’s red face and heavy breathing, wasn’t sure the slob would last through the show.
Slamming down his whiskey glass, the one on the left looked at his friend through glassy eyes, “That right?” Lifting his glass, he waved at one of the girls.
“Yep. Say she knows all kinds of moves both on and off the dance floor!” The rotund man slammed his hand on the table, laughing at his own joke. Soon his laughter turned into a hacking cough. The two scrawny boys took turns slapping him on the back.
Noah watched as the three men groped the young girl that brought their drinks. He thought seriously about leaving but was stopped when he saw Richard take the platform.
“Gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce – Dominique!” He gestured toward the curtain at the back of the tent.
As the sounds of a guitar began, the curtain fell to reveal a woman that at one time Noah knew had been beautiful. Unfortunately, she had seen some hard days and now her hair was a dull black, her skin was sallow, and her body had lost its seductive shape. The living she had done was shown in the lines on her face, each had a story to tell.
Moving toward the platform, she looked around at the crowd. As her eyes settled on Noah, he was captivated. He recognized the look, the same one he’d seen in countless towns at countless auctions.
She sprang up and began stomping her feet in rhythm with the notes. Closing her eyes she became one with the music.
Noah didn’t need to see her face to understand the desperation in her dance because he felt it in his whole body. He stared as she put everything into her movements, reaching out to the audience in supplication. For the first time in what felt like a lifetime, that feeling of desolation diminished. He was watching a kindred spirit. It was like she was dancing for him, and he didn’t want her to stop.
But stop it did as Richard took the stage and the music ceased. The men around him began clapping halfheartedly.
“Gentlemen, the moment you have all been waiting for!” The clapping turned into a roar as the audience hollered and laughed, slapping each other on the backs.
Noah didn’t understand. If anyone wanted his opinion, the moment he had been waiting for was cut short just now. Why didn’t they let her continue dancing? What else could these men be waiting for?
He then saw Dominique’s face. The intense look she gave the small barker was filled with anger and fear. He glanced around. The men just continued to howl and cheer. If anyone else noticed the look, they didn’t let on. Even if they had seen it, Noah doubted they would have cared.
“The number please.” One of the young girls came up with an overturned hat. Richard reached into the hat.
“And the winning number is,” pausing, he looked around at the men. “145.”
Noah heard a collective groan go through the audience. He saw the three men in front of him rip up their tickets.
“145.” The barker repeated looking around again, puzzled. Soon the men were looking around as well. Richard glanced over at the guitar player who shrugged.
Noah realized that the men were looking at their tickets. Taking his out of his pocket, he saw that there was the 145. Suddenly he grasped what was happening. They were raffling off Dominique.
Angry, he stood and, for a moment, tried to collect his thoughts and bring his emotions under control. Once he did, he started toward the platform, and the sight of him walking by silenced the audience. On the way, he recognized the resentment in the men’s eyes and, in contrast, the anxiety in Dominique’s.
When he reached the platform, images assailed him. All the slaves that he’d been able to buy and free. Yet that wasn’t enough because he’d had to leave so many more on the auction block. Again he looked around and the feeling of solitude came back. Finally his eyes rested on Dominique. No one made a sound.
He held up his ticket so she and the barker could see the 145. Then, as he looked into the dark depths of Dominique’s eyes, he ripped up the ticket. As he continued to rip, he held her eyes. The silence was so absolute that each rip echoed through the tent. Soon the ticket was in a few dozen pieces and, holding it in his fist, he turned his hand so the pieces fell to the ground.
Dominique’s anxiety melted and she smiled. Noah returned the smile and, holding his hand out to her, helped her down from the platform. As they walked passed each table, hand in hand, they didn’t look at anyone. At the tent’s opening, Noah turned to Dominique, pulled her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. Dominique leaned up placing a feather-light kiss on his check. Touching the brim of his hat, Noah nodded and walked out.
In the fresh air his thoughts went to his next stop. Saddle Falls was having an auction maybe he’d go there.
Being alone was hard but there were worse things.