This story is part of The Chain Story, a project founded by Mike Stackpole. It is a self-contained story, beginning in "The Wanderer's Club", a place for people to gather and swap fantastic tales of adventure. That said, you will want to check out the rest of The Chain Story; you can find it at http://chainstory.stormwolf.com. If you would rather read this story on your eReader (in ePub or Kindle formats), they are available here for less than a buck.
The Burning Servant
by Steven Saus
"That was a fascinating story, Mister Lambert." The young African-American man lifted a mug of beer to his mouth, leaving a pale mustache against his black skin. "But there are intellectual mysteries in our past that cannot be explained as simply as the canonical effect."
Doctor Montegro harrumphed from his stool, hand rubbing his muttonchop whiskers. "What kind of foolishness are you speaking of? Are you going to offer us math riddles in the middle of a tale of savages?" The rotund man laughed as he shifted the stethoscope that lay around his neck like a strange shawl.
The younger man flushed, his skin darkening further as he spoke over the scattered laughs from around the room. "Savages? No, sir, I would tell you a story of your own... civilized history. My name is Jonathan Freeman; I am an associate professor at the University. Surely the patrons of the Wanderer's Club are familiar with it?"
Jonathan smiled as he continued. "My grandmother, Sarah Freeman, told me this tale, and I will vouch for its veracity. Her mind is-"
"Just fine, Jonathan, dear." The woman stood in the doorway, surveying the room. Her dark face was wrinkled in the contour map's ridgelines of a long, busy life. The men shifted to the side, making a path as she hobbled toward Jonathan, resting her weight on a simple wood cane. "So this is where you go of a evening, is it?" She nodded at the few other women in the room, and whispered, a little too loudly to her grandson, "At least there are some women here for you."
Jonathan blush grew hotter. "Grandmother, I - "
"You was going to tell my story again. I know." She squeezed between Jonathan and Dr. Montegro, her speech formalizing into schoolmarm diction. "It was a difficult task, grandson, but I did earn my degree at Oberlin through my merits, not my good looks." She turned to the bartender. "Bourbon. Neat."
The others in the room laughed softly as she took the glass and took a drink. Her voice melted back and forth between Southern fluidity and formal diction. "Mmm. Burbon's a warm liquid, sirs. I crave some kind of fire to warm my bones at my age." Her gaze wandered over the men in the room. "Don't get old, boys! There's so much you give up, getting to be my age. Compromising, you see. You sacrifice something - a memory, a smell, joints that don't ache you of a morning - just so you can see another day."
"Mrs. Freeman," Dr. Montegro said, "I believe there was a tale in the offering. While your observations of old age are ... fascinating… they are not the coin of the realm. So to speak." The doctor looked down through his glasses at her. "We trade stories here, madam, and your grandson was going to tell one."
The smile creased her face even further. "Why, yes, yes, he was." Jonathan tried to guide his grandmother to an armchair, but she waved him off, settling onto a barstool. "You fine educated men know of General Sherman, don't you? The Union commander who burned his way from Atlanta to Savannah?" Several men nodded; a few, who had betrayed Southern accents earlier in the evening, frowned. Montegro's hand touched the silver chestpiece of his stethoscope.
Sarah looked up at the paneled ceiling for a moment, then back at the listening men. "What you don't know is that Sherman didn't do it all himself."
I was a slave (Sarah said) from the time I was a little girl until the end of the Civil War. I like to think it didn't change me much, though the world changed a right bit around me. I don't remember much of my very early days. My father, I don't recollect much of him at all - he was sold just after I was born, before my momma and I were sold to Mister Chipman. I was born on Mister Chipman's land, and my momma raised me there. She remembered Africa, remembered being free. She tried to teach me, and those lessons I recollect right well, though I don't always remember when she taught me.
The first year I can put a number to was '59 - that summer was blazing hot. Mister Chipman's plantation sprawled outside Rosewell, Georgia, a little ways outside Atlanta and right up against the Chattahoochee River. Oh, that river looked so cool, shimmering under the summer sunlight.
I suppose I should tell you a little about Alb… Mister Chipman. He was a widower, living with his two sons. He tried to be decent - the kind of slaveowner apologists like to talk about. He gave us cotton clothes, straw mattresses, and real walls for our homes. He would even let you call him Albert some days if no other white folk were around. His sons acted like managers, and treated us like employees. They'd only whip you if you really deserved it, or tried to run away.
But just since they treated us nice didn't mean we weren't slaves, don't you make any mistake. I remember that summer right well. One hot afternoon, the sweat just running down me so heavy that I thought I'd faint right away, I decided to slip into the river for a moment. Charles, Mister Chipman's oldest, saw me in the river and then they had to whip me. None of the slaves could get in the river - they were too afraid that we'd run off. They all acted real sorry about it, but I still got lashes deep enough to leave a scar.
The best thing was that momma didn't have to be secret about our worship. She practiced the way she learned as a child, from her mother back in Africa. She acted as a priestess for the slaves on Mister Chipman's plantation, and he let her. Momma told me that most owners would whip you for worshipping the way she did. Mister Chipman didn’t; so long as we listened to the traveling preachers on Sunday morning, he let us have our worship on Sunday night.
Days and years passed. I let a man start courting me in the winter of '60, then in the spring of '61, just after my mother married my Joe and me - it was damp and clammy that spring - she got pneumonia bad, and passed it on.
Dr. Montegro waved his hand at Sarah. "Surely you mean 'passed on', madam."
Sarah scowled at him. "If I'd meant such a thing, I would've said it." A deeper twang crept slowly into her words. "I weren't educated early on, suh" - Montegro winced at that - "but in the decades since Lincoln I've had nothing but time. My speech may have not been grammatical at that time, sir, but these days I know exactly what I say and what I mean." She waited a moment, then continued. "My mother passed it on - a little pouch with herbs and salt, a special oil for rubbing the heads of babies. I became our priestess a full year before my mother died."
Dr. Montegro harrumphed. "I've never heard of a type of voodoo being passed down that way, madam." He took the stethoscope and placed the earpieces around his neck, the chestpiece glinting in the light.
Sarah raised her right eyebrow, an impressive number of wrinkles rising on her forehead. "In those days, there were as many types of voodoo as there were slaves. I won't take offense that you haven't heard of my type of voodoo any more than you would take offense that I've never heard of your grandmother or aunt."
"You might have -"
She bit off her words - and his complaint. "I haven't." She looked around the room. "Do I have your permission to continue?" The men around her did not say anything, and she began speaking again.
Most days, I worked in the kitchen. I fetched water, mopped floors, served the food. Mister Chipman liked to have me serve when company was over. When he was talking business, he always had me bring the drinks. Oh, my, it was something, the way those white men would just start looking at me. It felt good that they thought I was pretty, but if it weren't for Mister Chipman refusing to sell me… Well, he got right mad at Mister Holden one night when Mister Holden tried to pull me in his lap.
That was just the smallest bit of it, though. Most of it was simple work, good work, and I didn't mind it none. Each night, the head cook let me slip leftover sweet cornbread into my skirt. I would take it home and offer a little bit to the Virgin, and a little bit to the gods to keep my promise to the cook. Then my Joe and I would lay in on our bed and feed each other the rest, small bite by small bite. Those were some good times, but my Joe, he was haunted by his life before Mister Chipman bought him.
Some nights, my Joe would wake me, thrashing in the grip of a nightmare. He remembered the ships, and I could trace the scars of the whip from his first master. When he cried out in the night, I tried to soothe him. I'd whisper a lullaby in his ear, then listen to his breathing, hoping the chickens clucking outside wouldn't wake him again. We were married long enough to know each other well - the details of my moods as clear to him as the shape of his face was to me - but we still surprised each other.
"It was early in September, in '64." Sarah smiled a little, closing her eyes. "I'll never forget it, my Joe's strong head nestled against my chest." She paused, taking in a deep breath through her nose before continuing, "The sweet scent of a night-blooming vine mixed with the sharp tang of our sweat."
Sarah let out a small surprised gasp and opened her eyes. A blush crept up her cheeks. "I had something horribly important to tell him." She surveyed the room, making sure she had their full attention before continuing.
"Joe," I said, "I'm with child."
He looked up at me, sharp, quick. I remember the bright glisten of his green eyes. "Are you sure?" he asked. He held me, and I felt the whip-scars along his back.
"Of course I'm sure," I told him. "My momma didn't raise a fool of a priestess." Joe got tense, then, muscles tight, and I rubbed his back a little harder. "I checked all the signs before I told you."
He pushed himself up away from me without a word. He stood in the door of our hut, his body outlined by the moon and stars. "Sarah," my Joe asked, "are you happy?" He turned and knelt next to our bed. "Are you happy… here?"
A brief gust of cool fall air followed him in and played across my skin. The smooth spiraling coolness reminded me of the Chattahoochee. I remembered swimming in the water, then imagined swimming with Joe. We'd swim down to Atlanta, past all the docks, then keep going all the way out to the sea. Oh, I imagined the sweat and grime and filth sliding off our bodies, and we would be free. Mister Chipman was a good man, but if he saw the fire I saw in Joe's eyes, neither of us would have been let near the water ever again.
"Yes," I told my husband. "Yes, I am happy."
Joe lay down next to me, and I fell asleep in his thick arms. I thought I woke briefly, that I heard my Joe crying, but I never found out if that was just a dream.
The next morning, I learned what Joe already knew. The Union army was nearby. Not only was it near, but it was headed south, and the slaveowners all headed to our plantation to decide what to do.
I never did find out why they came to meet at his home. We thought we knew what they were planning; we'd heard plenty of the revolts and runaways that followed rumors of the Union army. It was one thing to run when safety was states away, but when there was an army just over the horizon? Anybody could do that, and we all knew it.
Albert - Mister Chipman - wanted me serving that night. I was glad to be out of the hot kitchen. That night was a blur of bringing food and drink to the men gathered around the grand old cherrywood table. Even in September, the men sweated through the main course in wool suits, hardly eating the food I laid out for them. All those men had their faces twisted in the same mask of fear and worry. That is, except Mister Chipman, who seemed angry at something, and sitting at the far end of the table, Mister Holden. That night Mister Holden kept his hands off me, but he sure looked at me, and it seemed like he just kept looking right through my clothes. With his narrow face and goatee, his brown hair slicked back, the man just looked like a weasel ready to bite through the walls of a henhouse.
The men started talking while I helped clear the table, so I don't know exactly what all they said. I know I heard one man talk about the "devil Sherman," but it wasn't until I came back out with drinks that I really heard what they were saying. Mister Holden waved me over, so I went and refilled his glass with sweet tea. Mister Chipman then gestured to me, so I went back around the table to him. Mister Chipman didn't offer his glass, and didn't move so that I could get to it. So while I waited for him, I listened. I'd figured they were going to do something to keep us under control while the Union men passed by. I was wrong.
Sarah leaned back and gestured the bartender over. "Another bourbon, but wait here just a moment." She waited to see if the others were paying attention. "I see the similarity, of course, but I got another reason in keeping him here."
"But think of what this man's heard," she continued. "Not just things you told him, but things he heard while you didn't think a lick about him being around." She waved her hand, encompassing the whole room.
She turned to the bartender, who held a flyswatter. "What are you doing?"
"Um- there's a spider, ma'am."
Sarah tsked sharply, collected the spider on a napkin, and walked it outside. The few murmured conversations died again as she walked back into the room.
"That proves my point, doesn' it? Look at your own servants here. It don't matter that you pay them, just look at 'em. The bartender wears black. That girl there, serving sandwiches. She wears black. You wouldn't have noticed him swat that spider, but you noticed me saving it." Sarah waved the napkin that had saved the spider. "There's a reason for it. It makes us - it makes servants invisible."
She took a sip of her drink. "And then folks will say things they never meant for you to hear."
I stayed pressed up against the wall, holding the cold pitcher of tea against my chest, hoping the cold might help keep me from coughing in the clouds of cigar smoke. I couldn't quite catch what the men were talking about. All of them were talking at once, at least until Mister Chipman's voice boomed through the chatter. "I forbid it. You will not use my workers as sacrificial lambs." He gazed at each other man around the table, but stopped when he got to Mister Holden.
Sacrificial lambs? I thought. What are they planning to do with us? Are they going to make us into cannon fodder for the Confederate army? We'd heard tales of Confederate soldiers doing that, though now I don't think it ever happened.
Mister Holden glared right back at my master. "Forbid it, Albert? Forbid?" His finger slowly jabbed the smooth wood of the table as he spoke. "Your…slaves… are needed." He waved vaguely to the north. "You know what is coming."
The bald spot on Mister Chipman's head flushed a deep red. "I am a Christian man, Mister Holden. I'll have nothing to do with-"
Mister Holden laughed. "The devil is on the way, Albert, and we have to use all - all - the tools at our disposal to stop him." Mister Chipman started to say something, but Mister Holden cut him off. "Albert, your name is on the compact the same as ours, signed the same as ours, bound the same as ours." Mister Holden drained the glass of tea. "We have to move quickly. Tonight. It would simply take too long for any of the rest of us to gather our slaves and bring them to the river. Your land is right against the water, Albert, so it falls to you and yours."
Mister Chipman turned to me, holding out his glass. "Sarah, some tea, please." His face had lost the flush of rage. He was paler than I'd ever seen him, sweat beading on his forehead. I filled his glass in silence; the other men in the room had noticed me and stopped talking. When his glass was full, Mister Chipman said, "Thank you, Sarah. That will be all. Make sure no one else disturbs us."
I left the dining room for the clanking hustlebustle of the kitchen. I remember the tea pitcher clattering when I set it down with numb hands. Angie, one of the cooks, stopped by and picked up my hand. "Sarah," she told me, "you're the color of ashes. What's wrong?"
Sarah paused, staring at the images reflected in the small puddle of liquor in her glass. She tipped the glass back, letting the last drops trickle into her mouth. She gestured to the bartender for more. As he splashed amber liquid into her glass, Sarah said, "What's your name?"
Jonathan laid his hand on Sarah's shoulder. "Grandma, haven't you had enough to drink?"
"No." She waved him off, then turned back to the bartender. "What's your name?"
Her wrinkled hands grasped the bartender's. "Glenn, how long you worked here?"
The bartender looked up at the other patrons, a forced grin arcing the mustache on his lip. "It seems like forever, ma'am." The others laughed politely.
"Do you know that girl's name?"
"Yes, ma'am. Her name is Tamiko."
"And that busboy's?"
"That is Darrin, ma'am, but he is not a busboy, he's a - "
"That's not my point. You know the dishwashers too, don't you?"
"Yes, ma'am. We all play cards on Thursday nights after the club closes."
"And you wouldn't just leave any of 'em to die, would you?"
Glenn's right eyebrow arched upward. "Die, ma'am? Not if I could help it. They owe me too much at cards."
The left side of Sarah's mouth creased upward, then her face sank. "There ain't no cards on the plantation, Glenn. There's just lives."
I let Angie fuss over me for a few moments, but as soon as she looked away I left the kitchen. That was enough to earn me a whipping, but I wasn't worried about Mister Chipman. He never would've taken us to the river, not all of us at once, and sacrificial lambs just kept echoing in my head. I ran to our hut, my hand over the slight firmness in my belly. Later, I'd think about how I left all of them - all of them, even Angie, who'd shown me that small kindness - to whatever fate Mister Chipman was worried about.
The sun was just setting. Joe and the others in the fields would be back soon; they couldn't harvest in the dark. I gathered the few things we had and waited for him to return. I figured I'd light that fire in his eyes again, stoke it, get it to burn until we took my child away.
The gunfire sounded like firecrackers going off at the mansion, sharp cracks echoed through the still-hot air. The heat and night pressed down on my eyelids. Maybe if I slept, just hid here in our hut, I'd wake and my Joe'd be beside me. Another round of firecracker sounds split the air, and that time I heard screams carrying over the breeze.
I remember the tears tracing lines down my face as the screams and gunfire quieted. The sun dipped below the horizon, but I saw a new orange light on the horizon. No-one else had returned to our homes. Not Angie. Not any of the other slaves. Not my Joe. I crept back toward the mansion, keeping an eye out for any of the white folk, or any of the other slaves. Or my Joe.
The flames licked upward, a great roaring blast of heat in the dry air. I stared at it, drawn like night insects to a candle. I stumbled over one of Mister Chipman's sons. It'd been one of the older boys - William, I think - who had worked out in the fields. I didn't know him overwell, but my Joe had. He'd said the boy had even stopped to help him a time or two. Now he lay in front of me, a messy gunshot wound in his chest. When I bent over to close his eyes, the rich copper smell of blood made me retch a little. Then I realized what William being here meant, and I retched again. William'd been in the fields. With my Joe.
There were other bodies there. I don't remember much, and I’m thankful of that. Just flashes of pale skin and dark skin and all the blood the same dark color on the ground. I didn't find my Joe, though. The taste of ash coated my tongue.
Then I heard Mister Chipman gurgle.
He was close to the house, strung up on a cross, arms and legs lashed to the beams just high enough that he couldn't stand. The heat'd burned away his hair and blistered the skin of his scalp. Blood dripped from the broken lines of his jaw. His eyes looked down at me, almost hidden in the battered flesh of his face. "Sarah," he said, and I saw most of his teeth were gone, too. "Sarah, help me."
I swallowed hard and stepped up to untie him. "I'll untie you, Albert." I said.
"No, not that kind of help." He shifted, and a wound in his side came open, the dark splotches on his shirt growing larger. "Help me stop them."
My fingers skittered over the coarse blood-soaked rope. "I don't know -"
"They're scared of Sherman, Sarah." His head drooped for a second, his voice dropping low, hard to hear over the sound of the burning house. "They're sacrificing our ideals, compromising all of our morals." He struggled to lift his head. "Sarah, you have to stop them before they kill them all. "
"Mister Chipman," my fingers slipped off another knot, freeing his left hand, "save your strength. I can't stop them."
His fingers reached out, leaving a smear of his blood against my cheek. "Sarah, I know that you all worship differently. Less…civilized."
I laughed then, cruel as it was to laugh in the face of a dying man. "Mister Chipman, I tell stories to reassure others. I can't…" I searched for something silly to say. "I can't call up some savage monster."
Mister Chipman laid his free hand on my shoulder. "You'd better learn, Sarah. They can."
She paused, and this time no-one stopped the old woman from getting another glass of bourbon. The men in the club glanced at each other, at the hunting tropies - both real and fake - on the wall, staring into the smoky air of the Wanderer's Club. Her laugh echoed against the wood-paneled walls.
"Y'all expect to see spirits?" The sudden dark warmth of the accent flooded her voice. She waited until she had the gaze of every man in the room. "Y'all want me to pull out some chicken bones, maybe cast a hex on you?" She laughed again, dark and deep, and the men shivered. The edges of the room darkened - but was that just because they were concentrating on her? "Maybe I done already cast an evil eye on you."
Jonathan blushed. "Grandmother, please."
The shorter woman reached up and kissed Jonathan on the cheek. "Yes, dear." The darkness had again disappeared from her voice.
Sarah looked back out at her audience. "If you world-weary travelers haven't learned yet, there's as many kinds of voodoo as there are folks that follow it. Me, I've never seen any loas, never called no spirits. Just the lady telling you everything is going to be all right because you did the right things. Or I'd tell them that the bad things weren't their fault - it was some evil ghost. It made them feel better, let them fix the real problems in their lives."
Sarah stared right at Dr. Montegro. The doctor's hands held his stethoscope, fingers twisting the tubes while she talked. "The alienists - psychologists, you call them now - do the same thing. Take the bad things and turn them into other words - neurosis, psychosis, disorder. But those days, those men…they believed. Not just in their God, but in their devils and demons. Evil was real, and it was out there. And it was powerful."
Sarah sat back down on her stool. "And to men like that, power means not having to be scared."
I was scared then. I used to enjoy the smell of a bright cooking fire, but as the mansion burned I knew that wouldn't happen again. Mister Chipman's hand lay heavy on my shoulder. All the strength had gone out of his arm. I imagined I felt my baby kick, even though I knew it was far too early. My master's head slumped onto his chest.
"I can't, Mister Chipman," I whispered. "I have other things to worry about."
I don't know how he heard my whisper over the fire. Maybe he just felt me start to pull back. His eyes opened, and he spat blood onto the ground.
"They have Joe. Joe and Angie and all the others. They're going to call a demon, then feed them all to it as a bribe. Their souls will burn, trapped inside it forever."
"I don't believe you," I said, starting to pull back again.
His hand gripped my shoulder tight, stopping me. "They're calling it up to defeat Sherman. You won't be free either."
"I still don't believe you. There are no monsters. No demons."
His eyes flashed a deep noxious yellow. It wasn't a reflection, not of the fire, not of me. "Are you willing to bet the life of your child?"
I'd only told Joe about the baby.
Albert told me a little more before his eyes closed for the last time. Not enough. But more - where they had gone. What they were trying to call up … and how it was supposed to behave.
I went carefulquick through the stand of trees on the edge of Mister Chipman's land, a few early autumn leaves crunching underfoot. The branches scraped over my skin. Albert's voice echoed in my head again. "It'll be hungry," he'd told me, "but it'll be mad even more, like a wild animal. A circle, probably salt, will keep it from attacking its captors. The ones inside the circle are a bribe - to ease its hunger enough that they can command it."
I wanted Mister Chipman's voice out of my head. I wanted to hear my Joe whispering that he loved me into my ear. Instead, the wind carried the whinny of nervous horses, a sharp crack of a whip, and the rough smoke of a bonfire when it's first caught, a faint whiff of lamp oil underneath the clean scent of burning pine. For a moment, I wondered if the whole patch of trees would go up in flames. I doused that thought with thoughts of Joe, imagining holding him and the baby.
I was too late.
I hid at the edge of the woodline. They were only a dozen yards away, close enough to see but too far to do anything. Mister Holden held up a saber. The metal reflected Angie's face, his white robes flickered the color of the fire. Two of the other slaveowners held Angie's arms as she threw herself from side to side. Holden's arm came down, and the handguard smashed into Angie's face. Blood spattered from the crushed bones in her cheek, dripping dark circles on Mister Holden's robes.
I looked up from Angie, trying to see clearly through my tears. The other slaveowners and their overseers kept their attention on Mister Holden and Angie. The salt circle was there and held the slaves, just as Mister Chipman had said. I'll never know why they just stood there. I'll never know exactly what those… civilized men did to my friends and husband to keep them still.
I remember only some of the details. The stars had just appeared, cold and heartless over the day's lingering hot air. The white men's horses whinnied, eyes rolling but hooves planted unmoving in the ground. Mister Holden looked down at Angie, then at the dark spatters of her blood on his pure white robe. He smiled. Oh, gods, I'll remember that smile until I die. It reached right up to the crinkles in his eyes. He enjoyed this.
Then I believed Albert. Something about Mister Holden's smile, and I knew Albert hadn't exaggerated one whit. I started running for the circle, Mister Holden's voice booming past me, across the rocks and sand, echoing from the far side of the Chattahoochee. He was calling to something.
And as I heard the dull thunk of his scimitar taking Angie's head off her body, it came. I kept running. I ignored the burning heat in my lungs, ignored the blistering on my skin, ignored the twisted shadows the suddenly-huge bonfire cast across the white men. I saw Joe.
His eyes - all of their eyes - were glazed over with a soft white milky film. They shuffled in small circles. Between them, great spirals of glowing sickly yellow smoke erupted from the ground. I skidded, tripped over a stray stone, and fell to the rocky river sand. My toe barely touched the outside of the salt circle. Fear'd frozen my limbs solid; I was a little mouse hoping the cat wouldn't notice.
A few inches away inside the circle, the smoke had solidified into eight fleshy legs that reeked of rotten eggs, joined by a crablike torso three stories up, and a beaked bird head at the end of a long sinewy neck. It glowed sickly red with heat, hot enough to melt the flesh of those too close to it. It shifted its feet, shaking the ground as it tried to bash its thick hide through the cage made by the circle. It shrieked in anger, looked down at the people at its feet, and started to feed. Its head dove down from that high neck, its beak snapping off an entire torso with each bite, snapsnapsnap and three of my friends were gone. A fast swallow, and then it struck again, and again, and again.
I screamed when it took my Joe's head. A flick of Joe's blood arced through the air. It landed on my shoulder, and all of us outside the circle started to move again. Mister Holden shouted, raising his saber to rush at me. The overseers raised their guns and whips. The thing in the circle looked up at me, trapped by the thin line of salt. It had green eyes. They were moist, almost sad.
I pushed my toe through the circle.
The thing rushed past me, the heat of its legs pulsing off and smoldering my clothes. Its growl rumbled through the ground, its footsteps the sound of heavy summertime storms. I pushed against the rocks and pebbles, leveraging myself up enough to fall forward again - but inside the circle. I ignored a man's scream and I pulled my mother's pouch from my neck. My fingers fumbled with the smooth leather until I felt the hard crystals of salt. I sprinkled them onto the ground, sealing the break in the circle.
Sarah stopped talking to drain the last of her glass. "Well, that's a night, gentlemen." She waved to Glenn for her tab.
Dr. Montegro spoke up, placing his stethoscope back around his neck. "But what happened after that?"
Sarah handed the tab to her grandson and turned toward the door. "Whatever do you mean?"
"Obviously it didn't eat you, madam. So what happened? And what does this have to do with General Sherman?"
Sarah stopped and looked back at the doctor. "I still don't rightly know what that thing was. But I knew the look in its eyes. It was trapped, and I sure know what being trapped feels like." She stepped forward and poked Dr. Montegro in the lapel with a wizened finger, setting the stethoscope to swinging against the man's chest. "And it may as like be that you don't know, doctor, but all them slaveowners knew it. They knew that a trapped animal's just as like to snap at you as to try to get free. That's why they were too damn scared to even let us swim on a hot summer day."
Jonathan retrieved her coat as Dr. Montegro spluttered his way back to speech. "But, madam, General Sherman?"
The old woman smiled at Dr. Montegro, and though none of them would swear to it later, it seemed that her eyes flashed a sickly yellow. "Why, that poor thing was still hungry. Holden and the rest were just an appetizer. I sure wasn't going to point it toward the Union army, now was I?"
Sarah leaned back against the bar. "So I pointed it toward Atlanta." She smiled into her audience's gasps. "The landowners were right - knowing that Sherman was on his way did inspire slaves to run away and join the Union army. But by the time Sherman got to Atlanta, it was already in flames, and hundreds of former slaves from the plantations were ready to help him mop up. It made a right mess of that city."
Dr. Montegro shook his head. "My God. The devastation…" He looked up at the woman. "You monster!"
Sarah's face blazed for a moment, her hand shoving the stethoscope hard against Montegro's chest. "I weren't to blame for bringing that creature into our world, Doctor. And I sure weren't the general who thought that destroying Atlanta were such a good idea that he kept it up all the way to Savannah." Sarah slumped back, the suddenly-rusted stethoscope softly resting on the doctor's vest. "Those were the ideas of civilized men."
Sarah slid her coat over her stooped torso. "I did what was necessary to save my baby."
She nearly closed her eyes for a moment, swaying with a memory. Then she opened them again, and kissed her grandson on the cheek. "We all make sacrifices. We all make compromises." She walked to the door of the club. She opened the door, and looked back.
"The thing is, gentlemen, is to make them count."
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