Beneath the Willows – Chapter 11

Tomas trotted toward the Willows, deep in thought and disturbed by the brutal events he witnessed.  Everything Phillipe said made sense, for the most part. The plantation was in debt trouble, and another bad season could not be supported by the profits of the trading company.

Building the Two Seas had taken the majority of his income, so if one more season went bad, both enterprises would fail. It was a difficult decision, but if he followed logic, he’d sell to Phillipe and be done with it. However, after witnessing the scene a few hours earlier, what would happen to those working at the Willows once they were under Phillipe’s control?

Would Zeek be treated like the housemaid? May? Crystal? Images of them cowering in fear, being backhanded and beaten by Phillipe sent shivers through his body. He’d heard of the brutality many slaves faced, seen the whip cracked down at the docks, and vowed never to buy slaves to work for the Two Oceans.

Yet, with his father gone and the plantation under his control, he now faced the horrific truth of plantation life. He owned slaves, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Afternoon faded toward evening and Tomas had three miles to ride. Lengthening shadows created bandsa mix of light and dark across the rutted road, still puddled from the previous week’s rains, while distant echos of a riverboat’s whistle mingled with sounds of mourning doves roosting in the live oaks.

Eight small sugarcane plantations lay between Emerald Oaks and the next major residence. Small slices of land along the river, each one ten arpents wide along the river, then back almost four miles to uncleared cypress swamps. Tomas knew most of the owners, having dealt with them in New Orleans. However, unlike Emerald Oaks or the Willows, these were only fields where the cut cane went across the river to the St. James refinery.

Dozens of field hands, all standing in rows, plowed and hoed in sugarcane stubble in the field owned by Strahan & Company, while further back from the group stands of cane stood near four foot tall – ts leaves waving against a cool, northwest wind.

“Bonjour!” an overseer called out, waving his low crowned straw hat at Tomas. Sitting astride a near-white palomino, the bearded man towered over his charges. Three or four of the men craned their heads his way, but most remained focused on their – the oiled leather whip dangling the overseer’s saddle making certain of that.

Tomas tipped his hat in return. Saying nothing, he pulled his coat tight against the cold, crisp whispers of a white frost morning. If he retained the Willows and remained a planter, he’d need to know all of his neighbors – especially the overseers working adjacent plantations.

Moving on, he rode past another plantation, but the closest field to the road was fallow, typical for crop rotations. Most planted in threes: one ready for harvest, one for planting and one fallow. Once a field was harvested four times, it went fallow for a season to replenish the soil.

He could sell easy enough. Sure, it was his childhood home, but he was an adult now. His place was in New Orleans, where life was fast and furious, not stagnant like the Willows.

Yet, he thought as he led his mount around a deep puddle of muddy water. His mother would never leave. Losing the Willows would kill her, send her to an early grave along with his father. He couldn’t live with himself if that happened.

His horse neighed, tossing its head and snorting – jingling the tack. What had he planned? Keeping both? In that, Phillipe was correct: there was no way he could manage the Willows and the Two Oceans. Focusing on both would ruin both, while focusing on one would put an end to the other.

What about Marguerite? He thought, passing the gate of the Willow’s closest neighbor. Owned by a family originally from Mississippi, Welham Plantation was near the same size as the Willows – the difference being the Willows was wider, while Welham was deeper at almost five miles.

Tomas knew the family well, or had when he was younger. Clarence Whitehead was the planter, and his two sons, Jacob and Jared were near in age to Tomas. They’d been playmates of his when they were kids.

Unfortunately, Jared died of yellow fever, leaving Jacob the only heir to the plantation. He remembered Jake (as Tomas called him) talking constantly of traveling to Europe and seeing the great cathedrals of Paris. With his father aging and his brother dead, he had never gone, and now worked exclusively on the plantation. A recluse, if rumors were true; Tomas couldn’t recall a time he’d ever seen Jake since those early days.

Tomas shook the memory off, sliding his gaze from the large, ancient oak trees dotting the front lawn of Welham and back to the road; back to the task at hand.

Marguerite said they could manage both, and thought it wise they did so. She would run the Willows, while he managed the Two Oceans. It seemed plausible at the time, yet where would they live? She loved the Willows, and wouldn’t want to leave the plantation.

Would she live in New Orleans? He shook his head, causing his horse to toss its own. No, he thought. She wouldn’t. So he’d have to live in two places, splitting time between New Orleans and the Willows. That wouldn’t be so bad, he’d certainly have his freedom. As possessive as she was, however, he doubted that would last very long.

He sighed, noticing the approaching pecan trees marking the property line of the Willows. Behind them would be a rutted, dirt road, following the trees like an arrow from the Mississippi river on his left, to the sugar mill three miles back on his right, where wisps of smoke from the refinery curled over the treetops.

It was a tough decision he would need to make, and prayed it took less than a week.

He could only hope.

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