The sky was so black no one could have seen their own hand in front of their face. Everyone in the big house was asleep, and had been for hours. There wasn't a moon.
But the stillness would soon be broken. For murder approached through the night.
The distant thunder of horses' hooves gradually intruded into the senses of the dogs where they lay. Even asleep, their ears turned instinctively toward the sound. Instantly they jumped to their feet. A few barks echoed into the night. They weren't enough to wake anyone inside... not yet.
But the riders were coming fast. Within a minute or two the dogs were howling at whatever was moving toward them. Uneven flames played against the black horizon ... and the pounding of hooves grew ominous. The dogs saw the strange lights and barked the louder. Five or six sleepers stirred in their beds.
Two minutes later a posse of riders galloped recklessly into the yard. Dust rose in all directions. The dogs flew about in a yowling frenzy at the horses' feet. Chickens in their sheds cackled in an uproar of confusion, and a few cows in the barn began to low restlessly. Lanterns appeared in a couple of the windows. They were hardly needed. The torches of flame held from every rider's hand jumped high in the blackness and cast eerie shadows on the walls of house and barn and lit up the open space between.
"Hey you inside!" called the deep voice of the lead horseman. "You got a nigger in there--we're here for him!"
The band of white-hooded riders around him sat waiting. Their prancing mounts fidgeted with jittery energy after the long ride.
Daring a few glances outside, the women in the house trembled with terror.
After a long minute, at last the door of the house opened. A white man holding a lantern stepped onto the porch. He did not carry a gun. He hoped somehow to deal with this peaceably. Though he was not a man easily cowed, the sight that met his eye was enough to send a chill up his spine. He had spent most of his life talking rather than shooting his way out of trouble. Whether he would be able to do so on this present occasion looked doubtful. In front of him sat twelve riders draped in white sheets and with masked faces.
"We're here for the nigger ... you know why!" said the rider.
"You know who we've got here," replied the white man. "They're none of your concern."
"That young buck made himself our concern yesterday. This is what comes of being too friendly with that little girl of yours. Now he's going to pay! Hand him over or these torches'll be through your windows and that house of yours'll be nothing but cinders come morning."
"He doesn't live here. We've just got a couple of house darkies."
"Word has it he's been out--"
"Hey, Dwight--" interrupted another voice.
"Shut up, you fool," spat the spokesman, turning in his saddle. "--I told you ... no names."
"But I got him ... he was hiding in the barn!"
All eyes turned toward the voice. A tall young man wearing one of the white capes was dragging a young black man, still rubbing sleep out of his eyes, through the barn door into the torchlit night.
"That's him!" cried another of the riders.
Half the saddles emptied. Within seconds a small crowd was viciously kicking and beating the black man into the dirt. A few moans were his only reply.
"That's enough--plenty of time for all that later," yelled the man called Dwight. "We don't want to kill him here. Just get the rope around him and put him up on that horse."
"All right, you boys have had your fun," said the white man, walking toward them from the house. He still hoped to end the incident without bloodshed. "He's done nothing to any of you."
"He forgot what color his skin is--that's enough!" yelled another of the riders. "You seem to have forgotten it too."
"Ain't no good can come to a nigger-lover around here, mister," chided another. "That's something you maybe oughta remember. You and your kind ain't welcome in these parts."
Behind them, the door of the house opened again. Out stepped a white woman, by appearance close to twenty. Terrified at the sight that met her gaze, she drew in a steadying breath. Then she stepped off the porch and came forward with more apparent courage than she felt inside. She knew, in one way, that she was herself the cause of this incident. She hoped she could keep it from becoming still more dangerous.
"He meant nothing by what he did," she said, walking forward and speaking to the lead rider. "It was my fault, not his. I shouldn't have interfered."
"Then he should have known better, miss--and you should have yourself. Now that it's done, he's got to pay."
Out of the corner of her eye she saw the black man being shoved onto the back of one of the horses with his hands tied behind his back. One of the other men began forcing a noose around his neck.
"Get it tight!" yelled another with an evil laugh.
"But you can't do this!" she cried in a pleading voice. She ran toward them. "He's done nothing wrong!"
Rude hands restrained her and yanked her back. A surge of fury filled the white man where he stood a few yards away. He took several steps forward. But there was nothing he could do against so many. The young woman ran to his side in desperation.
"Let's go, Dwight," yelled one of the men, "--we got him!"
The last of the riders remounted. The rest began to swing their horses around.
Out of the house now flew another woman, this one black. She ran straight for the captive. Before the riders could stop her she threw herself against the horse where he was bound and clung to one of his legs. He looked down and tried to reassure her with a smile. The light from the surrounding torches danced in her eyes, wet with tears of terror that she would never see him again.
The eyes of the two former slaves met but for a moment. Though the noose had already begun to choke his neck, the young man tried to speak.
"I love ... we'll--" he began.
A rude slap across the mouth from the nearest of the horsemen silenced him. At the same instant, a booted foot from another shoved the girl away.
"Get away from him, nigger girl!" he yelled as she stumbled back and fell to the ground. "Otherwise we'll string you up beside him! We got plenty of rope for the two of you."
A few shouts and slashes from whips and reins, and the mob galloped away. On the ground, the girl picked herself up and ran a few steps toward them.
"No!" she wailed. The forlorn cry was lost in the night. Her horrified protests soon gave way to sobs. She hardly felt the arms of the man and her friend as they approached and tried to comfort her. Slowly they led her back to the house.
"But why ... why?" was all she could whimper in her grief. Neither of the other two had an answer. There was no "why" to hatred.
For the first time in my brief life as a free colored girl, I almost wished we were slaves again. Had Mr. Lincoln never set us free, a whipping and a beating might take place on a night like this. But at least the man I loved would be left with his life.
But times had changed. I knew that. Living in the South after the War Between the States was different than before. I had been glad of that ... before now. But now coloreds like me no longer had value as slaves. Before 1862, our very slavery, though our curse, had also been our protection. Whites may have looked down on us, and whipped us, even despised us. But not too many hated us. In the white man's eyes, we weren't worth hating. I hadn't liked it. None of us had. But it's how things were.
But the war changed everything.
Once we were free, hatred came to the South. A new kind of hatred. An evil hatred. Slaves had always been beaten. But blacks were now being hung. And now the young man I had come to love was about to become one of them!
I wept as I watched the torches disappear into the night. Dread filled my heart. I knew I would probably never see him again. What good was the freedom we had been given if we couldn't live long enough to enjoy it?
No, I did not want to go back. Not even now. Freedom was better than anything. But hatred created invisible bonds of its own just as bad as slavery. I had changed so much, we all had, in such a short period of time. But was it worth it?
The nation called the United States of America was supposed to be one of liberty and opportunity for all, or so I had heard. It did not seem so to me at that moment.
As a result of our newfound freedom, many black people might possibly rise up and prosper in this land that had long been our home.
But on this night it seemed clear that many would also die....