[Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Plank Road Summer, by Hilda and Emily Demuth, in a scene at the Mather Inn, as neighbors and a passing teamster, Mr. David Banvard, talk about the issue of slavery:]
The setting sun glinted through the windows in the dining room when Mrs. Mather placed her guests around the long table. Gran Mather sat at one end and Mr. Mather at the other. Mr. Mather asked the blessing. As she bowed her head, Katie caught a glimpse of David Banvard staring at Matilda.
Big Jim Doane cleared his throat. “Tell me, Banvard,” he said. “Meaning no offense, what’s a teamster doing with such a horse as that sorrel?”
The teamster smiled down at his plate. “Pure fancy, I reckon,” he said. “That’s what I call her. Fancy.”
“And do you fancy racing her?”
David Banvard shook his head. “I’m not much for a contest.”
Mr. Mather began to pass around the platters. “Tell me, Banvard, how is business in Rochester?”
“Growing steadily. I deliver farm equipment, especially Mister Ela’s new fanning mills. I make regular runs between Janesville and Racine.”
“I hear there were slave catchers in Janesville a fortnight ago,” said Big Jim Doane as he helped himself to another slice of ham. “Did they catch any fugitives? Did anyone collect a reward?”
The teamster answered slowly, “I’ve seen plenty of slave catchers up and down the Rock River. And the marshals are doing their best to uphold the law.”
Gran clucked her tongue. “Imagine a poor soul traveling so far to escape slavery and then being hunted down in the free state of Wisconsin. How shameful.”
Big Jim Doane smiled. “Meaning no offense, Gran,” he said, “but you Cornish don’t quite understand the way this country works.” He turned to the teamster. “I was born in Kentucky myself. I know firsthand that black folks are needed in the South. They belong there.”
Katie put down her fork. “But you left the South. Why shouldn’t they?”
At Pa’s stern look, Katie picked up her fork and began to eat her beans.
Mr. Mather said, “That’s a fair question. I can assure ’ee I’d rather have teamsters than slave catchers on my property.”
“You Cornish are all alike,” said Big Jim. “I hear Old Man Caswell took up a collection on behalf of abolition.”
Mr. Mather nodded. “A month back, the circuit rider preached on the Apostle’s words to the Galatians, in Christ there is neither bond nor free. After the service, Caswell said ’twas his Christian duty to put money into the hands of those who work to break the chains of slavery. Then he passed around his hat.”
Katie could not help herself. “Mister Mather, did you put money into the hat?”
“Hush, Katie!” said Ma.
Mr. Mather said, “Caswell said he’d take a hot iron to any slaver who came sniffing ’round his smithy. He said no man has the right to interfere with his property.”
“And that’s the very heart of the matter,” said Pa. “Hard as it may be for Northerners to understand, in the South a slave is considered property, no different than forty acres or a horse. The slave owner would agree that no man has the right to interfere with property. And the law of this country is now on the side of the slave owner.”
Ma shook her head. “Who would have thought that slavery would become an issue even in Wisconsin?”
“I don’t see any issue,” said Mrs. Doane. “People who mind their own business needn’t worry about slave catchers or a midnight knock on the door. It’s only the meddling folks who come to grief.”
“The Maker keep them,” said Gran Mather in a whisper, almost to herself.
As Mrs. Mather entered from the kitchen, Gran added cheerfully, “Sit ’ee down, Lavinia. Florence and I will bring in the pies.”
After the Doanes left and the McEachrons were saying their farewells, Katie slipped out to the log barn with a scrap of ham. In the dark stall, she sat in the straw and listened to the kittens mewing and the mother cat gnawing at the meat. Then she heard footsteps and saw the swinging arc of an approaching lantern.
Mr. Mather and David Banvard entered the barn. The men walked to the far end where the horses were stalled.
The teamster said, “Mister Ela said I should ask what you might say to the prospect of a midnight parcel. Your inn is well placed between Rochester and Racine.”
After a long silence Mr. Mather spoke. “Tell him that I would do all in my power to see such a parcel safely delivered.”
The arc of the lantern swung past Katie into the darkness of the yard.
[Excerpted from Chapter 3 of Plank Road Summer, by Hilda and Emily Demuth; copyright 2009, published by Crickhollow Books).