During the American Civil War Era, a young, runaway slave named Nat Clayhorne suddenly finds himself endowed with miraculous abilities.
The only question is: Now that he has them, how will he choose to use them?
Be among the first to read Night Sheen.
The following is a sample from the upcoming novella:
“Nearly a century ago, in the heart of the African wilderness, a myth was born of a unique plant called the “badra”. This plant thrives- not with the aid of sunlight, but in the cover of darkness. Over the years, many stories have been told about the wondrous badra plant- whose roots, when consumed, are said to contain tremendous healing properties. Many men from the outside world have died trying to acquire its rare gifts. But, so far, none of them have been successful in proving that the badra plant is anything more than a legend…”
– Dr. David Livingstone, Dr. Livingstone’s Cambridge Lectures, 1858
Clayhorne Plantation, June 1863
Nat could still remember the sound of Mae’s screams; the terrified look in her eyes as the ax came down; how red her blood had been oozing down her face. Nat wished like hell that he would’ve gotten free; gotten her out of there. But, at the time, his arms and legs were strapped down to a wooden operating table.
“Dammit, Cage!” a man by the name of Doc Shepard proclaimed. “Why‘d ya go an’ do that for?! I need’er alive. She ain’t worth nothin’ to me dead!”
“Calm down, Doc…” another man answering to the name William Cage argued. “It ain’t but one girl. We still got us a whole mess of nigras to choose from.”
With that, he had pointed to the group of slaves who were huddled nearby. All of them had been tied together using heavy, wrought iron chains that made it difficult for them to move more than a few inches at a time. Some of the slaves had sobbed at the sight of such a young girl being murdered in front of them. While, others wondered what the men in charge would do next.
“Looks like we got us a fighter, Doc!” Cage announced as he watched Nat twisting and squirming on the rigid table.
“Turn me loose, sir, please!” Nat begged with tears in his eyes. “I only aim to check on her; make sure she’s alright.”
Using his neck, Nat gestured towards the operating table next to him. On it, there laid Mae’s bloody and motionless body. Nat didn’t know why, but for some reason, William Cage just stood there grinning from ear to ear. Then, he started laughing. It was a deep, full-bellied laugh. In that moment, Nat felt so angry and helpless that, if he had been able to, he would have struck the awful man down with one mighty blow.
“What, you wanna save her, boy?” the man chuckled. “She’s dead. Can’t you see that? Can’t nobody help her now. Never you mind her no how. You oughta be worried ‘bout what’s gonna happen to you if you don’t keep still and do what I tell ya.”
“Oh, enough of this horse shit!” Doc Shepard exclaimed. “Get his dang mouth open! An’, make sure it stays open this time. He needs to drink the whole bottle for the medicine to work.”
“Sure thing, Doc,” William Cage replied. “Now listen…you open your mouth, boy, an’ you keep it open ‘til I say diff’rent. Ya hear?”
Nat hadn’t known why this had happened to him…or his sweet Mae. But, for some sure-fire reason, the white men had aimed to see the two of them drink some strange yellow concoction they kept calling “medicine”. It looked like piss and smelled a heap like it, too. The trouble was, neither she nor he had felt a lick of sickness since the end of winter. And poor Mae, she had known it. That was probably why she had the good sense, or stubbornness, to tell the men “No!”. It was the last thing she would ever say though. ‘Cause after she did, the one called William Cage had raised his ax and cut her down.
“You answer me when I’m talkin’ to ya!” Cage demanded as he grabbed the back of Nat’s neck and flung his head backward.
“Now, open your damn mouth!”
Defiantly, Nat bared down and gritted his teeth. But, his efforts were futile. ‘Cause as soon as he did, Doc Shepard came running over to pry his jaws open with the lip of a whiskey bottle.
“Just let me die, sir!” Nat had pleaded with the bottle wedged in his mouth.
“Please, please, just let me die!”
“Oh, you gonna wish you was dead, boy,” Cage informed him with an evil chuckle. “But, you ain’t goin’ nowhere ‘til we say so. Now, drink up.”
Suddenly, Nat had himself a mouth full of the nastiest liquid he’d ever tasted. Out of pure reflex, his body tried to cough it up. But, the more he heaved- the more Cage forced the medicine back down his throat.
“Make sure all of it goes down this time,” Doc Shepard had instructed. “We ain’t takin’ no more chances.”
“Oh, never you mind that, Doc,” Cage had assured him. “I’ll make sure this boy drinks every drop if it’s the last thing I do. Then, I reckon, me and him are gonna have us a little fun.”
Nat hadn’t liked the sound of Cage’s words one bit, but there wasn’t a whole lot he could do about it with his body strapped to the table. Besides, now that his Mae was gone, Nat had felt that it didn’t much matter what happened to him no how- especially seeing as he planned to be reunited with her soon.
‘Oh, precious Lord…’ his mind prayed. ‘I know it’s askin’ a lot, but please take me away from here an’ let me see my sweet Mae again!’
Right then, Cage had gripped the end of the long, glass cylinder in Nat’s mouth and commenced to shaking and pounding it like it was a ketchup bottle. Nat had tried to turn his face away, but Cage had grabbed his head and held it still.
“That’s right, boy!” he had told him. “You’re gonna drink every bit of this. Ya hear?”
Nat couldn’t breathe. It felt like he was drowning. Lying there, he started to wonder if he would ever get away from the two men or if that damn medicine bottle would ever be empty. And then, just like that, it was.
“How long do we have to wait to see if it worked?!” Cage had asked while sounding like a school boy at recess. “Can I take’um out back yet?”
“Hell if I know, Cage?!” Doc Shepard had answered. “The dang stuff didn’t come with instructions. All I know is…we barely got enough of it left. So, we can’t afford to make no mistakes here. ‘Cause if we do, then I reckon our boys’ll be the ones payin’ for it.”
“So, what’da sayin’ here, Doc?” Cage had argued in disgust. “Y’all want me to stand ‘round here all day waitin’ on this boy?”
“Hell no!” Doc Shepard had assured him. “Besides, if the medicine works, I’m gonna need help gettin’ the rest of’um ready. But…I figure we got us at least a couple more hours of sunlight left. I say, we give it a half-hour or so. Then, we’ll see if the medicine had time to set in.”
“And, if it ain’t?” Cage had probed curiously.
“Well…then I suppose, y’all’ll be free to do whatev’r y’all think is best,” Doc Shepard had concluded.
“That’s all I needed to hear, Doc,” Cage had replied with an alligator-like smile. “Ya got yourself a deal.”
From what Nat could remember, a half an hour had seemed to pass mighty quick. ‘Cause before he knew it, old William Cage had come to collect him from the operating table. At first, Nat had been glad to have the painful straps removed from his body. But, unfortunately, the gratitude he felt hadn’t lasted long. ‘Cause no sooner had he been freed from the table that he then found himself strung up outside with the sting of Cage’s whip across his naked back.
“Whhhhhyyy???!!!” Nat cried out. “Why are y’all doin’ this to us?! We ain’t wronged you in no way. We done ev’rything you asked of us. What give ya the right to treat us this way?”
“‘Cause boy, we own ya,” Cage had replied. “Y’all are the legal property of Colonel Buster T. Clayhorne. And, as his property, we ‘do’ have the right…to do whatev’r the hell we want with’cha.”
With that, Cage had cracked his whip over the young man’s back again and again. When he was finally done, Nat had known better than to say another word in protest. Still, even though Nat didn’t speak, it hadn’t stopped his mouth from howling something terrible. Nat didn’t know why, but Cage had seemed to enjoy himself. ‘Cause after the beating, the burly man cut him loose and then dragged his bloody body into a woodshed.
“I’s just gettin’ started with ya, boy,” Cage chided. “When I’m done with’cha, even your own momma wouldn’t recognize ya.”
Inside the shed, there had been tools of all sizes and purpose. There had been equipment for tilling the soil; instruments for cutting and carving wood. But, for all their many uses, none of them had a lick to do with what Cage had in mind.
One by one, Cage used each tool to carve out tiny chunks of Nat’s skin. Then, just for fun, he heated up a long, metal rod and placed the shaft across the right side of Nat’s cheek. Again, Nat found himself hollering in immense pain. Even with the stench of burning flesh permeating the air and Nat’s agonizing wails shuddering throughout the shed, Cage just stood there snickering.
“We’s havin’ fun now, ain’t we, boy?!” Cage declared as he grabbed a large hammer and went to work on Nat’s chest.
WHAAAAAP! The sound of the hammer crashing against Nat’s rib cage was deafening. Not only did it sound like his bones were being crushed, Nat also felt his poor bones shattering from within.
Nat didn’t know how much time had passed. But, little by little, the sun continued to set and it became darker outside. After a while, Doc Shepard arrived at the woodshed to check on Nat and to have a word with William Cage. Suffice to say, Nat had been grateful for Doc’s visit as it momentarily ceased the torment and abuse.Nat wasn’t sure if either of them had known, but during their conversation outside of the shed, they had been speaking so loudly that Nat had heard every single word that was spoken. Nat hadn’t known why, but for one reason or another, Doc had seemed mighty fired up about something called a “badru root”. He kept saying it was “almost gone” and how “the medicine” didn’t seem to be working since Nat’s wounds hadn’t healed.
“Dammit!” Doc Shepard shouted. “We’ve wasted enough time on this already! Everyday more an’ more of our men are dyin’ at the hands of those Yankee swine. We needed something…something that would tip the odds in our favor; something that even ol’ Lincoln himself couldn’t rally against.”
“What we needed…” Cage had argued. “…was for this to work, Doc.”
“Yes, you’re right,” Doc Shepard had agreed. “But…more an’ more, it has become clear to me that the stories we heard about the healin’ power of the badru root are nuthin’ more than a handful of tall tales told by small-minded men. An’, I, for one, have had my fill of their childish stories.”
“So, what’ cha think we should do then?” Cage asked.
“Damned if I know?!” Doc Shepard exclaimed. “But, whatever we decide to do, it needs to happen soon! Or else, I fear the Confederacy will be gravely outnumbered by Union forces.”
“I meant about the boy we got over yonder,” Cage corrected, pointing at the shed.
“Well…” Doc Shepard paused and thought for a moment. “I suppose we won’t be needin’ him anymore, now will we? An’…seein’ as he’s hurt an’ all, I don’t reckon Colonel Clayhorne will have much use for him here neither.”
“He could sell ‘em?” Cage offered. “The boy’s still a young buck. I imagine there’s somebody, somewheres who might be able to get a good day’s work out of him.”
“You got straw in your head, Cage?” Doc Shepard had disputed. “Who in their right mind is gonna pay good money for damaged goods?”
“Ah, hell…” Cage begun. “I was just thinkin’ that-”
“You ain’t paid to think,” Doc Shepard interrupted. “You’re paid to keep him and those other nigras in their place.”
“Alright…” Cage conceded. “What’cha want me to do with him then?”
“Finish up in there,” Doc Shepard instructed. “Then, take the boy down to the creek and string’em up. Don’t dally none. You can collect his body first thing in the mornin’. Besides, he ain’t goin’ nowhere and I need ya back yonder.”
This had been the last thing Nat remembered Doc saying before he headed off. But, it had been enough to send shivers down Nat’s spine. After all, he knew, clear as day, the two men had been talking about him. Hours earlier, Nat had thought about dying- even had looked forward to it. Yet, there had been something about hearing how he would meet his untimely end that set his mind in a panic.
Nat desperately yearned to flee the woodshed before Cage returned. But, unfortunately, both of his legs had been mangled and broken due to Cage’s handy work. Not only were his legs inoperable, but before his overseer had left to speak with Doc, he also chained Nat to the wall by his neck to be certain that his prisoner would be there upon his return.
Cage’s ax was less than a few feet away. Nat craved that ax. He ached to hold it in his hands. He longed to use that ax the same way Cage had used it on his beloved Mae. But, it sat there. Taunting him. The ax might as well have been a mile away. Nat was overcome with despair.
While his mind was on the verge of abandoning hope, his body refused. He feverishly continued to look around his surroundings for something he could use to defend himself. As luck would have it, he eyed a rake in the shaded area to his left. He could reach it if he torqued his body perfectly. So, using the remaining strength he had in his arm and shoulder, he scooted his body towards it.
“WHAT’CHA THINK YOU’RE DOIN’ THERE, BOY?!!!”
Those had been the last words Nat remembered hearing as he turned his head to see Cage’s ax coming towards his face. Then, everything went dark.
Somewhere Outside Clayhorne Plantation, June 1863
Nat awoke with a noose around his neck. He was hanging from a large oak tree about a foot or so off the ground. His hands were tied behind his back and bound by a thick cord of rope. He didn’t know how many hours had passed since his time with William Cage in the woodshed. But, seeing as it was nighttime now, he figured it had been awhile. Nat could hear the quiet sound of water as it flowed through darkness. He deduced that he must be somewhere near a river or creek.
Wherever he was, Nat didn’t know ‘how’ or ‘why’ the rope around his neck hadn’t strangled the life out of him. It sure felt tight enough to do so. Yet, there he was- wide awake and dangling in midair. In that moment, the only thing he knew for sure was that he had to get himself down. So, using his own weight, he swung his body back and forth vigorously until the branch holding the rope eventually broke, which sent him sailing to the ground with a loud thud.
Naturally, he had expected the fall to be painful. But, oddly enough, he barely felt anything as he connected with the compact dirt below. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he didn’t feel ‘any’ pain at all- not even from the parts of his body that had been horribly beaten and slashed by William Cage. He wasn’t bleeding anymore, either.
In desperation, Nat scrambled to his feet—which miraculously felt healed—and began to wonder whether Cage was hiding and observing him nearby. After all, given what Cage had already done, Nat couldn’t put anything past him. If he was indeed watching, Nat reckoned that Cage had probably found it amusing to see him clamoring around in the dark. But, after taking a closer look, there didn’t appear to be anyone in sight.
This discovery suited Nat just fine. ‘Cause before he could give it a second thought, his mind began to drum up various ways to get his hands free from the rope. Briefly, he considered burning the rope or simply cutting it off. The problem was, he had no access to fire and he didn’t have a blade or a knife. The only place he knew where to find either of these items was Master Clayhorne’s plantation. It was the very location he had been born and had lived all his life; the same place where he saw his mother be sold-off when he was just a boy and where he watched his sweet Mae be murdered in cold blood. Now that Nat was free, it was not somewhere he remotely wanted to return to. But, given that his hands were literally tied, he didn’t think there was much else he could do. The only other option Nat came up with was to find the creek and follow it until it led him as far away from the plantation as he could travel on foot. If he was lucky, maybe it would lead him north to the Promised Land.
Ever since Nat was young, he had heard stories about the Promised Land. It was said to be part of the country where negroes could go and be free. He didn’t know if any of the stories were true, or even what it meant for a negro to be ‘free’, but if it meant he wouldn’t have to suffer in the fields or feel the sting of an overseer’s whip again, it was all right with him.
While the thought of finding the Promised Land gave him a glimmer of hope, he knew there was no way he could get very far on his own with a noose around his neck and his hands bound behind him- especially with slave patrollers wandering about. From what he had been told about them, they roamed the woods at night looking for runaway slaves they could capture and return to owners for a reward. Although Nat didn’t feel much like one, he knew that’s what they would consider him…a runaway. And, even if he decided not to run, he still believed that once he returned to the plantation, he would always be considered a ‘runaway’ and treated as such.
‘Maybe, I can sneak in while they is ‘sleep?’ he thought. ‘I can get what I need in the shed and be gone from there ‘fore ol’ Doc Shepard or William Cage are the wiser. As long as I hightail it outta there by mornin’, it shouldn’t matter no how. ‘Cause Doc told Cage not to fetch my body ‘til then.’
Nat hated to admit it, but more and more, going back to the plantation seemed like his only option. Besides, there was a chance he might get lucky and find something he could use to remove the rope during his journey back.
Right then, he looked up at the stars overhead and used their tiny lights to guide him in the direction of the plantation. Before long, Nat found himself on the edge of a long, grassy road. The same road he had walked along dozens of times as a boy. The same road that led to the sprawling estate of one Colonel Buster T. Clayhorne.
‘Ain’t much further now,’ Nat thought to himself. ‘Just gotta follow this here path to get there is all.’
From the look of it, everyone was asleep. ‘Cause as Nat peered across the plantation grounds, everything seemed silent and dark. Quietly, he crept over to a nearby barn and noticed a rusty pitchfork laying next to a large pile of hay. Carefully, he lowered himself to the ground and scooted his rear over to the long, metal rod. With his back against the fork, he placed his bound hands over the top of the pointy ends and proceeded to move his arms up and down vigorously. It took him awhile, but eventually, the thick-braided rope around his wrists gave way and Nat’s hands were finally free.
‘Thank you, dear lord!’ he thought to himself. ‘I’s forever in your debt.’
Now that Nat had access to his hands again, he removed the noose from his neck and rubbed the area gently with the tips of his fingers. But, to his astonishment, his neck didn’t feel sore in the slightest. There were no welts, no seeping wounds, no bloody lacerations…nothing.
‘Well…?!’ he pondered curiously. ‘Don’t that beat all?!’
To avoid recapture, Nat had planned to make his way back to the woods as soon as his hands were untied. But, now that he was back at Master Clayhorne’s plantation, his mind kept thinking about the last time he’d been there. He kept seeing the ax in William Cage’s hand; the blood running down Mae’s beautiful face and the look in her eyes as she was tortured. As long as Nat lived, he would never forget what he had witnessed…or the awful feeling in his gut… that no matter how much he wanted- there was nothing he could do to ease her pain or bring her back.
He thought about all the terrible things he’d seen growing up on the plantation: the poor souls he’d seen collapse in the cotton field from the sweltering heat; negro men and women brutally beaten into submission- even a handful of them cruelly shot down in cold blood as they begged for their lives. But, for all the needless suffering and pain he had observed, much of it paled in comparison to the sheer horror he felt in that single moment when his Mae had been taken.
The more Nat considered her death, the more he began to wonder how many others on the plantation would share the same fate. With that in mind, he fetched himself a lantern that he found inside the barn. Then, he gathered his courage and headed back to where it all happened. It was a dilapidated cabin tucked away, about an acre or so from the main house. Until he’d been taken there in chains, Nat hadn’t laid eyes on the shanty. But now, as he inched towards it, it was a place he knew he would never forget.
From the outside, the cabin looked dark and empty. For a second, he thought of the poor negro-folk that had been chained inside, watching as he and his sweet Mae were tortured. He wondered where they were now. Had ol’ Doc Shepard finally cut them loose or had William Cage taken them out to his woodshed for a spell? Nat had no way of knowing for sure. He just hoped that wherever they were, they weren’t scared or hurt.
While Nat wanted to believe that the torment in the cabin had ended for his fellow negroes, he knew better. After all, he had seen firsthand the sheer evil the white men were capable of. In fact, judging by the conversation he had overheard outside of the woodshed, there was no telling what wicked act the pair of conspirators would do next.
Given everything he had lost at the hands of Doc and Cage, two words hung paramount in his mind: ‘Never again.’ With rage permeating throughout his body, Nat raised the flickering lantern and flung it into the cabin.
He was aghast at how fast and how far the lantern traveled through the air. Yet, as astonishing as the sight was, nothing had prepared him for how quickly the cabin went up in flames. In fact, by his estimation, it only took a matter of seconds for the front of the wooden structure to be completely engulfed in flames and smoke.
‘Good rid’ance,’ Nat thought as he watched part of the roof cave-in on itself. ‘At least no more evil can be done in this wretched place.’
It made Nat feel good to know that the operating tables he and Mae had been strapped to, the thing Doc and Cage kept calling the “badru root” and every drop of the revolting “medicine” he’d been forced to drink would all perish in the fire. But, just as he turned to leave, he suddenly heard the sound of faint cries coming from inside the cabin.
“Oh Lord, no!” he exclaimed as he darted back towards the commotion.
Right then, everything seemed to happen at once. He wasn’t sure what he could do. But, he felt compelled to do something…anything…to help whoever was trapped behind the growing inferno. As Nat ran to the back of the old cabin, he spotted numerous sets of hands reaching out through an open window that was steadily being consumed by flames. Some of the hands were tiny and frail; some were almost as big as his own, but all of them had dark-brown skin.
‘I gotta get’em outta there!’ he told himself. ‘Can’t let’em burn up in that there fire!’
Frantically, Nat searched for a well nearby or a place he could fetch water from. But, despite his efforts, he couldn’t find anything he could use to stifle the blaze.
“HELP!!!” a chorus of voices cried out. “We’s trapped in here! Can’t get free! Somebody help us!”
“I’ll get y’all outta there!” Nat hollered as he ran back to the cabin. “Don’t you worry none!”
The bodies inside didn’t respond though. Instead, all Nat could hear were terrified gasps, coughs and whimpers.
‘Lord please, help me get’em outta there!’ Nat pleaded through his thoughts. ‘Don’t let those good people die ‘cause of something I done! Oh, please Lord!’
Nat found an empty keg turned over on its side and he pulled it over to the open window. Standing the barrel right-side up, he leapt on top of it like a cat and peered through the smoky window frame. Inside the cabin, he saw something that made his heart stop.
Directly in front of him, there were several negro men, women and children- fighting to escape the ravaging flames. But, they couldn’t move. None of them. Their legs were chained to a large, round, metal object bolted to the cabin floor. No matter how hard they pulled or kicked, the damn thing wouldn’t budge.
As Nat looked closer, he recognized some of the people’s faces. They were the same slaves he’d seen at the cabin earlier that day. Yet now, they were hunched over one another frantically wheezing and gasping for air.
In the center of the room, Nat eyed a woman he hadn’t noticed earlier. He watched her praying and kneeling over a group of small children. Her arms were wrapped around them so tight that it seemed as if her body alone could shield them from the fire. From her embrace, Nat could tell just how determined the woman was to protect the young’uns. Yet, even with her strong will, she was no match for the impending blaze.
‘You gotta do something!’ Nat told himself. ‘They’ll surely die if you just keep on standin’ here.’
He continued to look around feverishly, but he was unable to find any nearby water to douse the flames. Of course, there was always the creek back at the woods. But, by the time he went there and came back, it would be too late; everyone inside the cabin would be dead. This meant, Nat was going to have to think of something else…and fast.
Then, Nat remembered the woodshed William Cage had dragged him to. He thought about all the tools he’d seen inside. Some of which, he reckoned, could be used to free the people from their chains.
‘It’s worth a try,’ he thought. ‘Lord knows, I can’t think of no other way to get’em outta there.’
Nat bolted towards the shed—about sixty yards away—and in a frenzy began to look for tools that could be used to break or cut through metal. Without a lantern to see by, he found himself stumbling around in the dark. Suddenly, his fingers landed on what felt like a sturdy cleaver. As he exited the shed and held the mysterious item up to the moonlight, Nat was shocked to discover he was holding Cage’s ax; the same ax that had cut down his poor Mae.
Nat’s first instinct was to toss the wretched thing aside and go back to find something else. But, he knew there wasn’t time. The fire at the cabin was spreading quickly and he wasn’t sure how much longer the people inside had.
‘Guess, this’ll have to do!’ he told himself as he stared at the ax in disgust.
With that, he gripped its long, wooden handle in his right hand and ran back towards the cabin.
‘Almost there!’ he reassured himself as he neared the burning structure. ‘Ain’t too much further now!’
Suddenly, Nat felt a ray of hope come over him. For a brief moment, he allowed himself to believe that everything was going to be alright; that he was going to get everyone out in time. Then, in an instant, his newfound optimism was stripped away as he watched the roof and walls of the cabin collapse in a horrific, fiery blaze.
If you enjoyed these sample chapters, be sure to pick up a copy of Night Sheen in Late 2021!
Copyright © 2020 J.T. Grainger. All rights reserved.