Meszat crumpled the square of paper into a compact ball. Script he couldn’t read covered the top of the wanted poster but he recognized Squire Johnson’s narrow face, the illustration prominently featured the facial whiskers on which the man prided his appearance.
There’d been no need to illustrate his features. Few forgot the distinctive scars marking each cheek with intricate patterns of raised tissue. His blue-black complexion and the wide tattooed bands circling his biceps were memorable enough to white folks. Towering above most men, his long strides drew attention when he walked, and his face was well-known to the residents of the region. The unusual cadence of his speech, a remnant of his African childhood, identified his first-generation status.
Six months surviving on his clever wit, granting his skills to the Maroon fugitives, and avoiding recapture fortified Meszat’s desire for revenge.
The Slave Code enforcers tracked him with chains and manacles. He’d taught them caution. He left one man draped over a column of Cyprus knees in the Okacheeta swamp. Another landed between two alligators sunning on the muddy bank. After he fed a third pursuer to the hungry river, enthusiasm for earning his runaway bounty waned.
His resistance did not.
No man mastered Meszat.
During two decades of slavery he made offerings, asked for strength, resisted torture and survived sickness. He performed muscle-tearing labor and tolerated the aches and pains of harsh living conditions, but the land tested his limits. At times he worried the ancestral spirits had forsaken him. When the soil swelled with moisture and burst open, a crusted infection, suppurating like a diseased limb, he could not abide the dampness. The deprivations, cruelties, and hardships he faced, but eventually Meszat ran.
He craved the burning blue skies of home. The fierce winds that scoured perspiration from skin and stung his eyes with salt. He yearned to feel the blazing sun bake the soft mud of the ground into plates hard as rhinoceros hide.
A sound jarred him from reverie.
Meszat listened as rowdy customers exited an establishment to the east, then he melted into the pinched alley separating a mercantile store and a warehouse filled with export goods awaiting transport to the docks.
His travels had taken him into a northern landscape of rolling hills with unrecognizable trees. True wilderness. He’d even seen the wild Red Men outside their dome-shaped houses clustered at the confluence of three great waterways. The sight speared his chest, a visual reminder of his own village. He’d maintained distance, as wary of the inhabitants as they were of his presence.
He avoided detection but the frontier altered him. His demeanor and carriage became that of the warrior and leader destiny decreed at the time of his birth. Time passed and the pressure to return built inside until his feet turned, determined the right path, and guided him through the wilds.
After a time he arrived in a familiar place. The waterfront of New Orleans. Squire Johnson’s townhome edged the commercial district, a necessity to oversee merchant exchange, and a convenient location to domicile his quadroon mistress.
The night ended before Meszat located the structure. One more sunset cycled until he seized his chance.
Tall, thin, and strong, standing out among other slaves, Squire Johnson knew Meszat instantly when he appeared beside the whiskered man. The night was early and the risk high, so Meszat slammed his fist in a fast blow and hefted the semi-conscious man over his shoulder.
The entrance of the adjacent building swung wide.
Meszat froze in mid-step.
He’d struck down a Caucasian man. His owner. Panic prepared him for motion, but a flow of energy enveloped him, touched him like the fingers of a blind man searching his face for recognition. For a single moment he smelled the heat of Africa and heard his father’s baritone laughter.
A dusky-skinned arm motioned him to enter.
Unable to disobey, he bent low and carried his burden into the interior. The door latched behind him. The interior was a dark cavern lit by a small clay oil lamp. His gaze dipped into the shadows and a woman stepped forward.
A length of bright fabric printed with tiny swirls of color wound round her body. Multiple strands of multicolored glass beads mantled her breasts. Both young and old, neither beautiful nor plain, she moved as if he dreamed. The high arches of her bare feet were exquisite.
She gestured at the floor and he dropped Squire Johnson. The man blinked, opened his mouth but no sound emerged. Blood gathered at the corners, darkened his lips like the stain of blackberries.
Trying to meet the woman’s eyes, Meszat discovered it impossible to focus, as though a delicate veil of spider webs obscured such intimacy. This female was more than human.
The woman pointed toward the street. “Hamba.”
Meszat stared, his shock complete. The woman spoke the language of his youth. She must be mchawi. Fear filled him when she repeated the directive. He stretched back and foraged for the knob.
The scenery shifted around her in a hazy cloud, transparent like smoke. He believed her more than a witch, an angry spirit perhaps. An echo of ancient story, told beneath the gibbous moon of midsummer, bloomed in his memory.
She was Haraka Shaya, the one who strikes quickly. “Meszat,” the woman intoned, “come again with the gift of a life.”
Mouth slack, he stumbled away. Shutting his ears to the gurgling scream of the man who’d stolen twenty years, he tried to pity Squire Johnson and found he could not.
The evening air felt warm on his naked arms. Meszat stood, hands limp at his sides, heart bereft. Retribution no longer mattered. He longed only to hear her speak his name, to see the words of his people spill from her mouth.
Turning into the gloom, he set out to find another gift.
(I chose Southern Gothic and Picaresque. Uh huh.)