Elizabeth washed her face and put on her town dress before getting into the wagon with Samuel. The trip took longer than usual because Samuel slowed the horses to a walk over the rough roads. Sam, in his steady voice, kept up a stream of talk that kept her mind off of her discomfort, at least long enough for her to think that Esther was a very lucky woman before she would sigh and shift herself again. As they pulled into town, the two noticed the unusually large gathering of folk at the general store, and as they pulled close, Elizabeth told Samuel to stay with the wagon. He knew better than to argue.
Matthew Stanford was holding court in front of the general store. Crowing like some stringy ol' rooster Elizabeth thought, but she paused for a moment before going in, just to listen.
"Fifteen negroes, from out to Batelle." "Ol'man Montgomery said they ain't never even left the plantation before, but they done got off anyways." "They been tracked up this way?" "Nah, it's only fourteen now. I heard they caught that one buck and hung him." "Well, Montgomery is willing to pay a good price to get them back."
Elizabeth felt the blush crawling up her neck, there weren't fourteen people in her barn, and with shaking hands, she entered the store.
She nodded politely and made small talk to all of the "Hello Miz Miller"'s, smiled over the requisite checker game in the back of the store, and then gave her list to the shopkeeper. She paused to look at some pinned up pictures of the new dresses from Paris, and turned to find her neighbor, Bill Whitcolm, near her side.
"Rotten year this year, eh Missus Miller? I don't think it's hardly worth my time to take a wagon full to market, do you? You know, we've had it fair to rough out our way too. Mabel sends her regards," Elizabeth nodded, "But I was thinking, it's a shame for both of us to waste time and all, taking crop to auction. If we were to pair up, say, I took yours in for you this year, then you take it for me next, we might make a decent go of things."
Elizabeth had half a mind to tell Bill where he could go, and it wasn't market, but then she saw him look out the window towards Samuel and then back at her. Bill knew their situation, and there wasn't a way in hell that a woman or a colored was going to get near to fair prices. She lightly shook his hand and said "That sounds fine, I thank you."
"Well, it looks like they done got your wagon loaded, let me walk you out then."
She stood at the tailgate, quickly counting bags and supplies, when she noticed Matt Stanford at her horse's head. He appeared to look the creature over, head to tail, like a man who knew his horses. He then walked back towards the wagon, giving Samuel the same up and down as the horse, like a man who knew his negroes, before continuing back to her.
"How are you this fine morning, Missus Miller?"
"None better for seeing you, that's for certain."
"That sure is a wagonful for just yourself and a few negras...It makes them lazy, you know, if you feed them too well."
Bill Whitcolm, being a man of many married years, took a protective step backwards when he saw Elizabeth's chin go up and heard her reply. "What was that? Just keep them hungry on table scraps, and maybe feed them a raw egg every once in a while so their coat stays nice and shiny? Is that what you're telling me?" Samuel barely disguised his laugh behind a cough, and as she step by step forced Stanford out of her way, Sam slid himself protectively across the wagon seat as well. "Well, I've got a tip for you too, Matt Stanford, you had best keep yourself and that gawdawful nag you been riding, off of my property, or I swear by all that is holy I'll shoot you just to see you fall."
She, with help from Bill Whitcolm, climbed onto the wagon and told Samuel 'drive'. The two men were left in a sizable cloud of dust, to which Whitcolm played off: "I seen it coming, Matt. My wife, she got that temper too. The whole time she was carrying. You wouldn't think a woman could yell for 8 months straight. I've got 5 children, why do you think I'm down here playing checkers alluh time?" Stanford glared at the retreating wagon, then began to with his friend as they returned to the store.
The loaded wagon groaned on it's return home. Elizabeth hoped that Whitcolm could work a fair price for her or supplies this winter were going to be tight. Samuel, seeing the concerned look on her face, assumed she was deep in thought about the confrontation with Stanford, and kindly offered, "It'll be allright, Miz Dolly, you just see. That ol' Stanford is just trying to stir up trouble."
"Hmm? Oh. Matt? No, I was just thinking..." she paused a second and looked at Samuel "I was just thinking I should probably apologize to his horse." Samuel's grin spread, and for the rest of the trip, he left her alone with her thoughts.