Union Flag of Civil War Period:
the "Stainless Banner";
13 stars of Confederacy;
adopted May 1, 1863;
this was flag used at the time of
The Battle of the Monocacy
Spring removed all traces of winter, and heat rose from the ground, spreading the smell of clover, grass, and honeysuckle. Sel sat on the back step. He watched the swarms of bumble bees hanging in the hot air and darting from flower to flower in the garden. They never stopped to rest, concentrating on the flowers, darting and hovering, darting and hovering. Their steady hum filled the air, and lulled him into closing his eyes.
Loud pounding at the front door broke the reverie. He walked around the house. Some men with horses were talking to his father.
"Got a broke saddle cinch. Can you fix it?"
On one of the horses slumped a slave, a big man, his arms tied tightly behind him. His eyes were shut and his mouth open. What was left of his shirt was shredded. Blood oozed down his back from a laticework of lash marks. Sel had never seen anything like it before.
Sel knew what they were--patrollers, a dreaded word among the slaves. They were the ones who would hunt down escapees. They used dogs, guns, carried whips, and would stop at nothing. They crossed state lines and dared anyone to get in their way. They were bounty hunters--the worst kind.
His father studied the slave. "Yep. Take a few minutes."
They all moved toward the livery stable and Sel followed. The four white men walked the horses.
His father continued to study the slave. "Where you men from?"
"North Carolina. New Bern." The same man did the talking, a squat little man with no hair.
Sel wondered if the slave could last the distance.
When they got to the stable, the man reached a whip from a saddle and with one fierce motion, slashed the slave screaming awake.
"Mister," said Sel, "that slave won't live to North Carolina like that." They ought to put something on the cuts. The man was bleeding.
"Oh, he'll live, Sonny," said the man. "He'll live just long enough. He might as well get used to it. He's only got a sample of what's coming. When the others watch him get the whip, there'll be no more runaways."
Two of them pulled the slave off the horse. He fell to the ground. The man with the whip told him to get up and kicked him in the stomach. Sel could almost feet the kick himself. It was vicious. The man's boot had almost disappeared in the slaves stomach. How could anyone carry that much hate?
His father watched the slave struggle to stand. "What you do to your property is your business, except for while you're at my stable. Tie him to one of the hitching posts and leave him alone or go get your cinch fixed somewhere else."
"You an abolitionist, mister?"
"What I am is none of your business. I wouldn't treat a horse or a goat like that. Do you want your cinch fixed?"
There was no further argument and the men did as they were told. They tethered the black man to a ring-post in front of the stable. The rope wasn't slack enough for him to sit so he kneeled on one side of the post and leaned against it, eyes shut. Sel stood in the alley between the house and the stable.
The slave didn't move.
The men went into the stable, and the squat one called to Sel. "Keep away from him, boy. He's a wild one."
Sel took a step back even though he was already ten feet away, and the man laughed as he walked after the others. The slave's face showed no expression, and it didn't look like he was breathing. He leaned his head against the post in sheer exhaustion, like a man would, Sel thought, not like an animal. Why the hell were they doing this?
Sel gazed at the barn door. What kind of men could treat another man this way? They didn't seem to think anything of it. They should be the ones tied up. He glanced back at the slave. He looked exhausted, but something more, like he was dreaming. The face showed no change except for the mouth. A slight smile, then words not spoken out loud, then another smile. Where was he in his head? He wasn't here.
The slave's head began to move, as though in time to some beat Sel couldn't hear. He was humming. He was going to be killed and he was humming. The eyes opened and looked directly at Sel. No threat. More like a question. He continued to look, as though at a tree or a rock. Sel walked closer.
"I'm Sel." He didn't know what else to say.
"Hytoo? What does that mean?"
"It mean I be high to everbody else. I be high to a field of corn. They call me Hytoo 'cause I high to the sky." He smiled, and Sel wondered how he could smile with all the slashes on his back and neck. "All the Mamas who ever feed me call me Hytoo. All the Mamas who ever sing in my head call me Hytoo."
He closed his eyes and Sel watched as the head began to move up and down in time to the singing in his head. The slave hunters were deep inside the barn, probably watching his father.
Hytoo opened his eyes again. He smiled.
"You're hearing them sing in your head now?"
"I hear them sing. I hear the cricket. I hear the corn stalk whisper. I hear the sky flash at night." He closed his eyes.
Sel grabbed a dipper from a bucket by the well and scooped it full of water.
He touched Hytoo on the shoulder. The eyes flew open and Sel held the cup out toward Hytoo's mouth. He tipped it and Hytoo drank. The cup was empty in seconds, and Sel filled it again. Hytoo tilted his head back again and Sel tipped the dipper.
"Boy. Thank you, boy. Thank you, boy."
The dipper was empty.
"Boy, that water sing to my throat. Thank you, boy."
Sel looked at the whip welts and dried blood through the ripped shirt. One welt glistened across the face just under the eyes. Hytoo looked fresh as though the water had washed through his head.
"What are they going to do to you?"
Hytoo leaned his head against the post, again. "Whip me 'til I die."
Sel shook his head no and Hytoo opened a wide grin with teeth like a row of white rocks.
"It don't matter none, boy. It be better maybe. If'na paddyrollers gitcha, maught's well be dead."
Hytoo closed his eyes and began to hum in a high voice nodding his head forward and then down and back, in a curious circular motion. He stopped and stared at Sel.
"Is I gonna git help?"
He closed his eyes again, but held still as though listening for an answer. He bobbed his head again. "Nobody can stop me now. Nobody can stop me now." He hummed again but it sounded like he was still saying nobody can stop me now.
Sel wanted to cut him free but didn't dare. He felt his jack knife in his pocket and pulled it out, placed it in Hytoo's hand, and ran across the alley to where he had been. Hytoo knelt, humming and dipping his head. Sel was relieved that no one had seen.
When the men came out the barn door, Hytoo opened his eyes and stood up.
"Well. If it don't look like the rest did our stray some good, Sam," said one of the men to the man with the whip.
"Yeah. I reckon maybe he was afraid I'd use the whip to wake him. That right, Hytoo?"
Sam untied the rope from the ring-post and Hytoo stepped to his horse, put his left foot in the stirrup and hoisted himself into the saddle without help or effort.
"Well," said Sam. "I reckon maybe that rest did do him some good." He uncoiled the whip and lashed Hytoo across the back. Hytoo barely flinched.
"That's just so you don't forget what's comin."
Sam glared at the slave and the men mounted their horses. They rode past Sel.
Hytoo's back was straight, his arms bound tight, his fists clenched behind him. His head was high to the sky.
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