Yankee Reconstructed -- Excerpt
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Yankee Reconstructed -- Excerpt

The Flicker of Torches
October, 1867
 
Jonathan breathed deeply as he stared out over the western piazza. He had always loved South Carolina sunsets. Their purple clouds swirled across a background of  gold, followed by curtains of navy blue.  Darkness settled slowly over a city that seemed to be at peace, if only for a few nighttime hours. If he had ever had doubts about the wisdom of bringing his family back to Charleston after the war, they faded away in the soft, scented air. Flowers still bloomed, even in these months of autumn, and the night birds still chirped their sleepy calls. He closed his eyes, holding the memory against whatever challenges the next day might bring. Perhaps that was what made him miss the first flicker of torches from behind him.

“Damnation!”

“Sh-h-h-h!”

“Roses got thorns,” grumbled a scratchy voice.

“Hush!”

The mumbled comments, added to the shuffle of boots, jerked Jonathan from his reverie. Turning from the sunset toward the other end of the piazza, he was almost blinded by blazing torches carried by indistinct figures robed in dark clothing.  He moved toward the door, which was open to catch the night breezes. He had left Susan sitting just inside that door with her tatting, and his first instinct was to protect her from whatever this invasion portended. But he was not quick enough to move back into the house.

“Grenville?”

The challenging voice froze his movements, his hand still on the latch.  He eased the door closer to the frame as he turned to face the group of men now stomping up the gentlemen’s staircase. At the top, they stopped. “You Grenville?” the same voice asked again.

“I’m Jonathan Grenville, yes. What do you want with me?”

The ringleader took a single stop onto the piazza. We don’t want you. We want your nigger.”

“There are no Negroes here.”

“Yes? So you say. That’s not what  we heard.”

“Who are you? Why do you come in darkness with faces covered? I am an  honest man, and I expect others to be honest as well. Identify yourselves and we can talk.”

“Our disguises are for our own protection. There are those about who would prevent honest Southern gentlemen from doing everything they can to protect their families, their state, and their heritage. We hide our faces until we know that the people with whom we speak are not Scalawags, Carpetbaggers, Yankees, or nigger-lovers. Do you fall into any of those categories, Mr. Grenville?”

Jonathan tried his best not to react to the question. Truth be told, he thought to himself, I probably fit into all four groups. “You are Klansmen, then.”  It was a statement, not a question.

“Ah, you have heard of the noble Ku Klux Klan, I see. Why is a fine, upstanding Southern gentleman like yourself not one of us?”

Jonathan refused to be baited. “I’ve heard of you, but I didn’t know you were active in South Carolina. We’ve never needed your kind of interference to manage our affairs. I repeat. What do you want with me?”

“We’re looking for Hector Gresham. Recognize the name, do you?”

“There’s no one else here, except for my family.We hire a woman to help with the cleaning and the children, but she goes to her own home every evening.”

“We’re not after a maid. We want Hector Gresham. He’s a fugitive from justice, and we hear he might be heading here to seek your protection. You do know him.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes, I know Mr. Gresham, but I haven’t seen him in over a year. He has never been a criminal, and he’s certainly not my . . . ‘nigger.’”

“Used to be your slave, didn’t he? That’s what we’ve been told.”

“Long before the war, yes. But I freed him, and he moved his family far south from here to start a new life.”

“Sure. Moved south to cause more trouble, more likely.”

“No, Hector’s not the type to cause trouble. Surely you have the wrong man.”

“Didn’t you own a plantation on Edisto Island?”

“Yes, but—”

“And that’s where he went—to join his father-in-law in stealing your property from you.”

“You’re wrong. His father-in-law, Thomas, purchased a piece of our land  at the end of the war, just as General Sherman’s Field Order 15 provided, and Hector went to help him turn it into a proper farm. They bought the property fairly. You have the story confused.”

“No, you are the one who is behind the times, Grenville. South Carolina no longer recognizes anything that damnable Sherman had to say. General Howard came to Edisto last October, at the order of President Johnson and told the slaves that they had to give their land back to its former owners. In February, agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau arrived to assure the peaceful transfer of land, only to find a bunch of sullen, defiant niggers standing their ground, armed with sticks and hoes. Your fellow Thomas was one of the ringleaders, until federal troops forcibly removed the protesters. Thomas and some of his lot armed themselves and declared they would die before they surrendered their land. So some of them did.”

A chuckle came from somewhere in the darkness. “Served them right, too, those damned niggers.”

Jonathan felt a chill ripple across his back, and although this was a conversation he certainly did not want to have, he could not help but ask. “You say you’re looking for Hector, so he was not one of those involved in that incident?”

“No, but that don’t say much about what’ll happen to him when we catch up with him. He’s made his own brand of trouble.”

Another chuckle responded. “String him up, I say. Ain’t fit to live.”

The ringleader held up a hand to quiet his followers and then turned back to Jonathan. “So you haven’t seen him?”

“No.”

“Well, keep your eyes on the lookout. He’s bound to turn up here sooner or later, and when he does . . .” The statement trailed off but left no doubt as to the threat it proffered. “We’ll be back, Grenville. We’re not through with him . . . or with you.”

Jonathan found that he could not move as he watched this small band of trouble-makers move down the street. They kept to the shadows, and peered furtively into empty yards. And then they turned a corner and were gone. Jonathan felt the terror drain from his body, only to realize that he was trembling and sweating at the same time. I can’t let Susan see me like this, he thought. I must calm down or I will frighten her beyond reason. He drew several deep breaths and tried to stretch his muscles. 

He froze again as another dark figure emerged from the shrubbery and climbed the stairs. This man had no torch, yet he moved sure-footed across the piazza. “You may not be ready to believe this, Mr. Grenville, but I am your friend.” He spoke in falsetto, making his voice unidentifiable.

“Do I know you?”

“You’ve seen me many a time. If you saw my face, you would know me.”

“Then take off that mask and reveal yourself.”

“I cannot do that. I took a solemn oath to keep my identity a secret from all with whom I have Klan dealings. We don’t even know the others in the Klan. That’s for our own protection. We are strangers but we move with a single purpose: to rescue the South from the horrible injustice that has been committed  against her.”

“There was no injustice. The South started the war by seceding, and pursued it long after all hope of victory was lost. The bloodshed of those horrible years must rest on your own shoulders.”

“This is not an argument I want to have with you. I like you. I know you to be a good man. I know how many students have profited from their time in your classroom. But I know more about you than that. You are a Yankee, born, raised, and educated in Massachusetts, of all places.”

“I’ve never denied that.”

“Some would call you a Carpetbagger, although I wouldn’t. Still, you came down here to make your living by teaching our  young men, although, as I recall, you lost your teaching job because you taught them some of your abolitionist views. You hoped to change our attitudes and our business practices to suit yourself. You married a young Southern belle to get your greedy hands on her inherited property.”

“See here! I had no such . . .”

“I know. I wouldn’t say all that, but some will, and those who do will call you Carpetbagger. Others—those who believe that you once made an honest attempt to learn the ways of the South—will label you Scalawag.”

“Which is, according to your definition?”

“A Scalawag is a Southerner who turns agains his own land and traditions. You have to admit that you . . .”

“I have to admit nothing. I am a simple man only trying to live a quiet life here in my wife’s ancestral home. I am not a political creature. I vote as a civic duty but not as an outspoken advocate of one party or another. I do not meddle with such things. Why cannot you leave me alone?”

“Because you do not yet understand the gravity of your position. And as your friend, I want to help you to do that.”
“You have a strange  way of showing friendship.”

“This is the only way I have. But I pray you will listen to me further. The Klansmen who were here tonight also call you a nigger-lover. The story of you freeing your slaves on the night of the Great Fire is well-known. A certain judge who helped draw up the formal emancipation papers for you now moves with us. He will speak against you, if it should ever come to that.”

“Why should it ever come up? I have done nothing wrong, while all of you—you have invaded my property and brought threats against me and my family. You have come under cover of darkness and in disguise. I challenge you once again to stand and reveal yourself if you are so sure of the rightness of your cause.”

“And I have told you that I will not do that. Ever. I may never have another chance to speak to you so freely. I’m risking punishment, as it is. But as I told you, I am your friend, and I would like to see you avoid further difficulty with the Klansmen. I urge you to take this warning to heart. If Hector Gresham comes to you for protection, you must turn him over to the authorities. If you do not, the Klan will come after him with a rope. And then, my friend—and then—they will come after you. Take care!” With the same light-footed step that marked his arrival, he moved down the piazza steps and was lost into the darkness.

Still stunned by this turn of events, Jonathan moved to the door, determined only to reclaim the safety of his home. As he closed the door behind him and dropped the heavy safety bar, he heard Susan’s voice, as if from a far distance.
She stood in the doorway to the dining room, down the hall from the twin parlors that flanked the front door. In the flickering gas light, her eyes were huge, and her hands cupped her cheeks as if to hold herself together. “Jonathan?”

“Everything’s all right, Susan. You don’t need to fret yourself.”

She shook her head. “No, you don’t understand. They’re here.”

“Who’s here? That unruly mob has gone on their way. I’m sorry if you had to hear part of that, but they’re all gone now.”

“No, not them. Him. Hector’s here—and Sarah. They’re below stairs right now. What are we going to do?”


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