By Katy Curry©
She appeared as delicate as a porcelain doll that warm spring afternoon; dressed in a soft pink day dress with fresh roses at her bodice. She sat somewhat precariously on the veranda swing and lifted her head to catch the small breeze that blew unexpectedly onto the terrace. As the breeze faded, she reached for where she remembered her fan to be and leaned forward reaching with her other hand for the lemonade sitting on the table. In her off balance state, she took a tumble and was left looking about quizzically from the veranda floor.
She smoothed her skirt, picked up her Battenburg lace fan and looked up at her man-servant as if the floor was where she had planned to be all along.
“Look, Mathias, I have found my fan. However, I could use some fresh lemonade.”
Mathias shook his white-haired head, a smile lighting his walnut toned skin. “Now Miss Lydia, we can’t have you sitting on that floor. Let me help you up..”
Lydia gratefully held up her arms so Mathias could help her to her feet. He placed her back on the swing so gently one would think she might break. He smiled at Lydia with the tenderness of a father. Her gaze returned that affection and trust.
“It’s time for you to come in, have some tea and scones; Martha made some fresh today, and practice your music.” He gently reminded her.
“Jack left to fight for the South almost ten years ago, Mathias; I don’t know if he is even alive. The others came back years ago. Do you think he will return? I know his name was never on the death lists, but if he wound up in Andersonville, well, we may never know.”
“That’s true, Ms. Lydia, but that’s just the point, we don’t know. Besides, we need to keep yo’ fingers in shape, You would not want to disappoint Parson Kendall, he needs you to play those church tunes.”
Lydia sighed; “You are right, as always, Mathias. I just miss Jack so much. We were to be married seven years ago. I should be enjoying children right now and here I am, a spinster, in love with a ghost.”
“Now you stop that right now, Ms. Lydia. None of those other yokels out there has turned your head, and they gots nothing to offer you. You be patient, wait for God’s good time and you will have those children soon enough.” Mathias reminded her.
Martha, Mathias’s wife, walked in carrying a large silver tray with tea, cream, and a plate of scones. Lydia could smell the fresh scones, and her mouth began to water. She espied the coddled cream and clapped her hands in excitement. The three sat around a smallish table to enjoy afternoon tea together.
All eyes turned to Martha for none dared to eat until she gave thanksgiving for the bounty they enjoyed. It wasn’t that long ago that all of them had gone to bed hungry more times than not.
Martha bowed her head, hummed to herself for a few moments and began: “Jesus, we give you thanks for how you have taken care of us. You have looked after us and protected us. You have blessed Mathias and me with this precious child. Help us to continue to raise and guide her in Your ways, so she stays in your will. Thank you for this home and for teaching us the value of your blessings. Keep us safe, for I fear more trouble is coming. ”
Everyone responded with “Amen.”
“Martha,” Mathias began, “what was that you said about more trouble? What have you heard or seen?”
Once the war had ended, the plantation had been devastated. Fields were in ruins, cattle, horses, goats, cows; even the chickens were all gone. The taxes were triple what they had been. Most plantation owners lost everything. Lydia was frantic. She had been in her father’s corner office on the first floor and in frustration, had beat her fists on the bookcase. Something felt different, and as Lydia stared in amazement as a section of the cabinet opened to reveal a small room. She screamed for Mathias, who came running with loaded gun thinking she was being attacked by local vagabonds looking for food, money, shelter, and were not too particular from whom they stole. They found the equivalent of a pirate’s treasure of gold and silver coins, pearls, rings and all manner of loose stones.
Mathias had not been surprised about the new found wealth and seemed more relieved. There was no keeping the secret anymore and he had sat Harry Swan’s daughter down and told her the story of her swashbuckling father and the fortune he had laid aside for his beloved daughter, Lydia Morgan Swan.
He had been known as Pirate Harry and had been commissioned by the English government to raid the shipping lanes. He had turned over just enough treasure and captured sailors to keep Parliament happy but had held back a portion of each bounty claimed to take care of his soon to be born son. That son made a surprise entrance as a girl. Harry’s wife, Delores, had succumbed to fever shortly giving birth to Lydia. That put an end to Harry’s privateering. He had sold his ships, taken his daughter and trusted first mate, Mathias, and moved to Virginia as a gentleman plantation owner. Harry had the right temperament to play the role of a plantation owner. He was educated, slender, but well muscled, was able to entertain with captivating stories of his exploits, had a sharp business mind and knew how to appeal to the ladies. In truth, Harry had no interest in running the plantation, called Swan Acres. Mathias had the knowledge and knew who to coax or purchase to get the best value and workers. He had successfully run the estate from the beginning. Harry was devoted to his daughter, Lydia, but grieved deeply for his wife and his seafaring days. Finally, when he could ignore the call of the sea no longer, He left his daughter in Mathias and Martha’s charge and traveled to Boston looking for an opportunity on a whaling ship. He had never been heard from again.
Mathias and Martha had not disappointed Harry’s memory or trust in either the success of Swan Acres or the raising of Lydia. He diversified the crops based on the not only the topography and soil of the land but on the changing demands of the market. His decisions significantly affected the profitability as plant numbers could be increased or decreased depending on weather, market demands, futures prices, etc. Lydia had been raised to appreciate the work and planning it took to run a plantation, had been employed next to field hands to appreciate the work it took. Martha had undertaken to hire the best tutors in comportment, music, Latin, philosophy, mathematics, writing, literature and more.
Lydia was, indeed, Harry’s daughter. She relished a day of work, decidedly unladylike riding her favorite gelding, bargaining and bartering over crops, land, just about anything; yet when she put on her gowns and fixed her hair, all one could see was a very delicate young lady who needed protecting.
Although now eighteen, Lydia remembered what life had been like before discovering the treasure. Carpetbaggers and others had taken all there was to take, the carpets, dishes, even Lydia’s crib had been claimed to pay the new taxes levied since the end of the Civil War. A damaged wall had led to the discovery of Harry’s treasure. Mathias had taken the discovery in stride, almost as expected. With creative banking to hide the new wealth, taxes, and needed repairs happened.
Together they had decided to improve the living conditions of the workers by providing better housing and more food. Lydia insisted on setting up a school for the children through the eighth grade. Mathias had worried it would slow down harvests, but the parents more than made up for what the children would bring in. Lydia had also insisted on proper medical care. She was the first plantation in America to make such arrangements for field hands.
As they were enjoying their afternoon tea, there was a sharp rap on the door, then, a few seconds later another one. The impatient guest raps fully three times before Mathias got to the door. He opened the door and stared at the two men in their elegant suits and top hats.
“Boy; took you long enough to answer the door. If you were my house boy, I’d whip you for keeping Ms. Swan’s guests waiting. Now take Mr. Blankenship and myself to her and none of your chatter about not bothering here. We have a most important matter to discuss with your mistress! “
His eyes were snapping with anger; Mathias strode formally into the front room where Lydia and Martha were finishing afternoon tea.
“Mistress, May I present Mr. Blankenship and Mr.???”
“Mr. Arthur Gordon, Mistress.” interrupted a righteously indignant junior attorney.
As the two men beheld the scene in front of them; a black woman having afternoon tea sitting as if she was an equal to Miss Lydia, they were dumbstruck. Finally, Gordon Blankenship found his voice.
“We have some essential items to discuss with you; there is no need for the servants to remain.” Gordon frowned at Martha and swung his gaze around, so there was no mistaking his intent.”
“Ms. Lydia, I will leave Sir Boniface with you while to talk with these …gentlemen,” Mathias said to Lydia. She clapped her hands at the news.
“Yes! Yes! Please bring him; I haven’t seen Sir Boniface all day!” Lydia exclaimed.
“Madam, this discussion does not require the presence of, your barrister!” The door opened, and Mathias led it a massive black dog who stared and growled at the two men. Lydia held her fan up to her face to hide her amusement at the men’s reactions. Sir Boniface settled heavily at her feet, “talking” to her as pit bulls do. His appearance, noises, and huge teeth kept the very self-impressed men far from their intended prey.
“Miss Morgan,” began Mr. Blankenship, “are you aware that that darkie in there has been transacting the business of your plantation in your name? He was seen with large sums for cash hiring men, selling harvested crops. Why he was even observed signing a contract in your stead! Mr. Blankenship finished drawing in some badly needed air.
“Now, we can understand your shock at such news, Miss Swann,” Arthur Gordon continued. We are here to help you take your plantation back from these impudent sla- excuse me, darkies, and put it solidly back in your hands. Further, we are in a position to help advise you about crops and potential profits. We can help you take care of this terrible situation, teach those darkies how to work and all for a mere forty-five percent of the profit after expenses.”
Lydia was amused as well as insulted by their assertions. She wanted them gone but could not let them go without a lesson they would not soon forget.
She clapped her hands together in mock horror. “Mercy me, I had no idea! Gentlemen whatever shall I do?”
Mr. Gordon warmed to his argument and continued on his tirade without noticing the gleam in Ms. Swan’s eye or the sardonic way her mouth had begun to twist.
“If you will but leave that in our capable hands, Miss Swann, we will turn the main crop back to cotton instead of all these more work intensive smaller crops. We will shut down that ridiculous school, imagine, a school for darkies! The children can help work the fields and bring in the crops. ”
Again, Mr. Gordon failed to notice the body language of an angrier and angrier Ms. Swann.
“We will take that overbearing houseboy, Mathias, I believe you called him, and a good whipping will teach him some manners. Thus, we will free you from his and that woman’s control and leave you free to make decisions with our sage advice. There are profits to be made here, Ms. Swann, and we can guide you in the best way to use your farm and employ your field hands!”
“Well, Misters Gordon and Blankenship, I do believe we need to handle this situation once and for all immediately!” Lydia stated, and rather imperiously, picked up her bell and rang it stridently until Mathias presented himself.
“Mathias! ” Lydia said, “It has come to my attention that you have been handling the money of the plantation and making arrangements to sell crops among other dealings on the farm. Is this right?”
Mathias nodded his head, “You know I am, Ms. Lyd…” but was stopped short by her upraised hand.
Well, sir, I believe you are going to have to have a lesson in being fruitful and uppityness! These two fine gentlemen have a plan to move us to a one crop farm and putting those lazy children to work! They will also do all of this for a mere forty-five percent of the net profits.”
Lydia gave Mathias a conspiratory smile. “Can you, Sir, explain what you have done and answer for it?”
“Yes, Ma’am. We doubled our profits by diversifying our crops and meeting the needs of a variety of markets, switching out the crops helps the soil so it can grow more. Our workers are turning out half again as much work because they are happier workers and want to give us a fair days’ work. We can afford to be picky about who we hire. ” Mathias answered,
Lydia turned to Mr. Blankenship. “Sir, what kind of net profit do you believe we can expect using your methods?”
Taken aback by the direct financial question, Mr. Blankenship swallowed and did some quick calculations in his head. “I do believe you could easily count on ten thousand dollars before our cut.”
Without missing a beat, Lydia turned to Mathias; “Did you hear that? I could make five thousand five hundred dollars a year! What do you have to say to that?”
Mathias kept his eyes on the floor as looking at these fools would have made him burst out in guffaws. “Ma’am, I don’t know if we could meet that number.” He stopped for a moment.
Gordon and Blankenship exchanged triumphant looks for about ten seconds.
Mathias continued, still looking at the floor. This last season, after expenses, the plantation made seventeen thousand four hundred eighty-six dollars. ”
“Mathias, how can you explain this?” Miss Lydia persisted.
“Well Ma’am, I think we can blame those numbers on smart use of land, happy workers, and good negotiating practices to sell the crops by this ‘uppity darkie.'”
Lydia turned back to Gordon and Blankenship. Gentlemen, I fail to understand why I should give up over double what you believe you could produce for me? Why I do think you are fast talking jackanapes! You have tried to hoodwink me! Sir Boniface, get these thieves out of my house!” Lydia ordered.
Sir Boniface beamed at the order and ran toward the two carpetbaggers. They ran, he kept them rounded up and headed for the door. In their haste, they tumbled down the four steps outside the front door and again down the six steps to the ground. They cut a funny picture as they beat the dirt from their suits while running down the road.
Lydia leaned out the window and called to them.
“If you come back, Sir Boniface will beat you to the door and welcome you himself! We have no time or interest in thieves such as you!” Lydia called to them.
She would not realize for another couple of months what enemies she had made.
It was the height of the growing season, the middle of July and Lydia saddled her favorite
horse, an appaloosa gelding she called Pirate to survey the crops. She rode through them at least once a week to check on potential problems such as blight, weevils, grasshoppers, etc. She instinctively understood that something that seemed harmless at first glance would render a crop useless in a matter of days.
While she rode and checked her crops she sat proudly atop Pirate. She knew what she needed to do and how to do it. Lydia hoped to be done by noon as the afternoon heat would make things most uncomfortable. She was immersed in her tasks and did not notice two men at the edge of the woods across from her.
The two scam artists, Blankenship, and Gordon, sat in the woods across from the plantation watching Lydia.
“We need to bring that girl into line. Swan Acres is the key to this entire plan. We have to stop her from taking care of these darkies so well, a school for the kids? Who ever heard of the like? Those brats are going to have a better education than all the white kids around here.” Blankenship said.
“We need to talk to her one more time, let her know what she is going up against; how badly this could end for her and her darkies,” Gordon responded. There was a grin on his face that promised this would not be a good meeting for Lydia.
“She’s alone in that tobacco field, now is a good time. Let’s see how well she handles things when she doesn’t have that ugly mutt and that old man to run interference.” Blankenship urged.
They both sank their spurs cruelly into their horse’s sides and took off for an unsuspecting Lydia. She heard them when they were a far ways off and shaded her eyes from the glare of the sun to see who was coming. She let out a high pitched whistle that sounded more like a bird call. The drop in the tone told Sir Boniface to come up to her quietly and not to expose himself. They had taught him to do this during the Civil War to keep him safe from soldiers.
Lydia double checked the small five shot she had in a holster in the pocket of her riding outfit. She looked around and wished some field hands were working, but the fields had been tended last week. Lydia led her horse, Pirate, to the supply building, tied some tobacco leaves in his reins, and found some oil and matches. She whispered in Pirate’s ear and slapped his haunches, sending the Appaloosa gelding back to the plantation. Once Pirate came home without her they would know Lydia was in trouble and help would come. The tobacco leaves she had tied to the reins would tell them where. She just had to keep the two men at bay until help arrived. No small task with only a small five shot and no extra ammunition. She grabbed a canister of oil and started to pour it around the backfield of tobacco. If a fire started, the backfield would cause the least amount of damage. She had done all she could to prepare.
She whispered in Pirate’s ear and slapped his haunches, sending the Appaloosa gelding loping back to the plantation house. Once Pirate came home without her they would know Lydia was in trouble and help would come. The tobacco leaves she had tied to the reins would tell them where. She just had to keep the two men at bay until help arrived. No small task with only a small five shot and no extra ammunition. She grabbed a canister of oil and started to pour it around the backfield of tobacco. If a fire started, the backfield would cause the least amount of damage. She had done all she could to prepare.
With Sir Boniface hidden nearby, his menacing growl barely audible, she stuck a match and lit her tar covered torch. and waited for Blankenship and Gordon to approach.
“Well, well. look what we have here, Gordon!” drawled Blankenship.
“I do believe it’s that uppity slut from Swan Acres.” said Gordon. “I bet you’re going to be more likely to listen to reason out here all by yourself. May as well put that torch down, we don’t scare that easy, Miss Lydia.” He leered at her in a way that made her feel cold and dirty from head to toe. Lydia hoped help would come soon, she could not hold out long against these men. She was sure they had much worse in mind than ravaging her.
“Gentlemen, a ruined plantation would do you no good at all. I am prepared to do just that before I sign papers to hand it over to you carpetbaggers. I have refused your offer, I have not changed my mind. so you should go. ” Lydia had lifted her chin to show she was serious and lowered the torch toward the tobacco crop.
Gordon laughed, an evil laugh that told her he put no stock in her words. “You just go ahead and burn the place to the ground, little lady. We will replant, you will still have what we choose to give you. We have the agreement here and we have some time. So let’s all go into the shed, we will pleasure you and you can sign the agreement. Why you might make an extra twenty dollars on the deal. That is IF we are pleased with the pleasuring.”
Blankenship had worked his way up behind her while his cohort kept Lydia distracted. He tried to wrestle the lit torch from Lydia’s hand. but had not expected the strong woman he found, rather than the weak, passive southern belle he anticipated. Lydia had worked every part of the plantation alongside the field hands, sometimes as the only field hand. She was strong and capable.
The torch went flying, but into the tobacco. It began to burn with a heavy smoke that would bring others quickly to put out the fire.
Gordon cursed and slapped Lydia viciously across the face. “Think you are so smart, missy? When we are done with you, you won’t even be able to work the local whore house!” He ripped the sleeve of her shirt exposing her arm and her camisole. He was about to rip again when a great growl came from behind him. Sir Boniface, seeing his mistress being attacked, leapt and landed on Gordon’s back. He sunk his teeth into the man’s shoulder and shook his head back and forth violently. Gordon gave a great howl of pain, immediately letting go of Lydia, trying desperately to reach behind him and get the dog off his back.
Blankenship jumped to help his partner but found himself facing the muzzle of a small, but powerful five shot. “Now, now, Missy, no need for that now. We
“Now, now, Missy, no need for that now. We was just having some fun. No harm was done. You just put that peashooter away. Call your dog off and we’;; leave you in peace. All’s well that end’s well.” coaxed Blankenship. He kept his eyes on the gun, looking for an opportunity to overpower this slip of a girl that seemed to be more capable than many men he had known, swindled, and killed.
Lydia whistled a strange set of notes and called, “Bonnie, come here.” Gordon was screaming behind her and when she backed up enough she could see that his shoulder was in shreds and probably dislocated. “Good boy, Bonnie.” she said to the hulking pit bull.
“Now you two get on out of here. I will keep those horses you so sorely misused as payment for the damages you have caused. Get off my land or I will set him and the rest of the hounds on you!” Her voice was cool. clear, and there was no mistaking her intent. She meant every word and seemed to know how to handle the two men.
“Your dog nearly killed me!” screamed Gordon. “You need to pay for my medical attention and that dog should be shot!”
“You go to Doc Thornbury in town and he’ll fix you up, tell him to send the bill to Swan Acres. Don’t have time to shoot the dog, he’s due at the orphanage to play with the children. They always look forward to playing with old Bonnie, he is so calm, let’s them pull his ears, just about everything you can think of, such a pushover.”
The thunder of hooves could be heard as men who had seen the smoke came to save what they could. Mathias and half a dozen field hands arrived and were shocked to see Lydia with half her blouse torn, pointing a five shot at two men who were starting to leave on foot. They took in the sight and the field hands let out a roar of fury and lit out after the two men. Mathias immediately went to see to Lydia’s needs.
“Call them back, Mathias,” said Lydia tiredly. “No point making more trouble for ourselves than we already have.”
Mathias called the workers back and sent two to carry both men to town where they were dumped unceremoniously onto the road in front of Doc Thornbury’s office.
The carpetbaggers stumbled into Doc Thornbury’s waiting room calling out loudly that they had an emergency and needed medical help immediately.
“What’s all this ruckus?” came a gruff voice.
A tall, thin man with salt and pepper hair, a white mustache and goatee ambled out from the back room. He had impossibly long arms and legs and had often been mistaken for long gone Abraham Lincoln.