Katy Smith: Free Men

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Katy Smith Free Men
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Free Men: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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From the author of the highly acclaimed comes a captivating novel, set in the late eighteenth-century American South, that follows a singular group of companions — an escaped slave, a white orphan, and a Creek Indian — who are being tracked down for murder. In 1788, three men converge in the southern woods of what is now Alabama. Cat, an emotionally scarred white man from South Carolina, is on the run after abandoning his home. Bob is a talkative black man fleeing slavery on a Pensacola sugar plantation, Istillicha, edged out of his Creek town’s leadership, is bound by honor to seek retribution. In the few days they spend together, the makeshift trio commits a shocking murder that soon has the forces of the law bearing down upon them. Sent to pick up their trail, a probing French tracker named Le Clerc must decide which has a greater claim: swift justice, or his own curiosity about how three such disparate, desperate men could act in unison. Katy Simpson Smith skillfully brings into focus men whose lives are both catastrophic and full of hope — and illuminates the lives of the women they left behind. Far from being anomalies, Cat, Bob, and Istillicha are the beating heart of the new America that Le Clerc struggles to comprehend. In these territories caught between European, American, and Native nations, a wilderness exists where four men grapple with the importance of family, the stain of guilt, and the competing forces of power, love, race, and freedom — questions that continue to haunt us today.

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Katy Simpson Smith

Free Men

For my own brother

About this time, a bloody transaction occurred in the territory of the present county of Conecuh. . The party consisted of a Hillabee Indian, who had murdered so many men, that he was called Istillicha, the Man-slayer — a desperate white man, who had fled from the States for the crime of murder, and whom, on account of his activity and ferocity, the Indians called the Cat — and a blood-thirsty negro, named Bob.

ALBERT JAMES PICKETT, History of Alabama, and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, from the Earliest Period (1851)

March 9, 1788 Le Clerc

THE FIRST SIGN that order had slipped its axis was that the slave who came to tell us of the murders was riding a horse.

I was reclining on a mat this morning next to a chief of the Creeks, cleaning my pipe while his wife tended to his hair, and I was in the midst of reminding myself to make a note of this habit, the way she greased her fingers before the ritual untangling, when he snapped his head away from her and shouted at one of his lieutenants to get that man off the good horse. The Indians let their slaves ride mules and are generally rather lax with regard to discipline, but this steed was evidently of superior breeding, which detail briefly obscured the greater fact that the slave was alone and was clearly distraught.

I traveled down to the southern hunting grounds yesterday with my chief and his attendants and various wives, including my own, and I was expecting a reprieve from the recent flurry of negotiations and skirmishes that now color the post-revolutionary landscape of the inner American wilds. I am grateful for the role that I, an outsider and a Frenchman, have been given in such proceedings, but I have long preferred to take an observational seat. Though I can see how my intellect and experience are useful to these Creeks — or Muskogee, as they call themselves — I pursued this circuitous path to America in order to catalog the divergences of man. I left friends behind in Paris who dissect amphibians and sketch leaves, but I hope to earn my place in the burgeoning science by classifying human action, to construct not a hierarchy but rather a forecast for future generations. While history may be used to explain the present, I believe that the present may also offer prophecies.

So when he dismounted and brought us his story — that the trading party consisting of four American loyalists en route to Pensacola, who traveled south with our protection and with Creek slaves as guides, were brutally attacked and slaughtered in the dark of night by a band of ruthless highway robbers who stole their bags of silver and slit their throats, and that this band comprised a white man, a negro, and an Indian who appeared in the dark to be a member of the Creek nation — well, I saw this to be a rare encapsulation of the types of man, a scale model of American brutality and independence, and I volunteered to hunt them down.

Because I have yet to fail him, my chief Seloatka agreed, and I retired to my tent to prepare my belongings and inform my wife. She is a decent woman, and did not protest when she was matched to me in one of the early ceremonies of my attendance in this nation. I came from France via the Arctic and the northern American cities, but I have not been more pleasantly welcomed than in the towns of the Upper Creek. A marriage is seen as an act of trust and an invitation into their elaborate kinships, which remind me of the royal houses of Europe with their dueling clans and irrepressible gossip. The Indians, however, are far less savage and their hospitality unparalleled. I informed my wife that her paramount duty, besides the daily labor in the field that occupies these women, is to provide me with a steady supply of paper and ink. These commodities here are rare, but she must have a well-developed relationship with traders, for whenever I run out, there she is with a new sheaf bound and tied with twine. If my researches earn any audience among the European journals, I will credit her as my assistant.

Seloatka afforded me three Creeks and the original slave to guide me to the site of the outrage, which fortunately lies closer to these hunting grounds than our town of Hillaubee, so that my pursuit will be abbreviated. I am accustomed to such missions; when I first arrived in this riverine country in what are known as the Yazoo lands of West Georgia, I began earning my keep as a tracker and a deputy of justice. My singular obsession with the anthropology of men, my ability to predict their movements with ease, led me to the enemy, the errant wife, the fugitive slave. The tracking itself was simple; men left all manner of signs behind, and I had merely to trail in their path with my eyes attentive and lo, I’d find a broken branch at five feet high, or a print in the mud longer than a paw, or a spray of urine that had no musk to it, or ashes. Even rivers did a poor job of masking, for there was no invisible way to emerge from one. When I found the culprits, I’d rope them up and bring them back to my employer, or just their scalps, whichever he preferred. This put my interests to use, but there was little challenge: all the subjects I encountered were guilty, and each proclaimed his innocence. Only in later years have I taken on the heavier duties of war chief, but I am not sorry to return to this early occupation, testing as it does the strength of my scrutiny.

“I’ll come with you?” my wife asked. It is true that she’s accompanied me on similar excursions, but mostly because Indian women are difficult to dissuade, and she is certainly more help than hindrance. It was she, in fact, who found the Spanish drunkard last spring who set a Creek barn on fire.

“No, this needs somewhat more focus,” I said, “and your charms, I fear, would distract me.” She does have charms, though she tends to use them for her own amusement. It is curious that she has never attempted to grease my hair. She can seem more like a hired companion, albeit playful and generally attentive, than a wife, but I am aware that my expectations regarding female behavior are colored by my French upbringing; I cannot expect her to order my household in silence, for no other women here do.

She was not the least put out. She gathered up our pile of skins from the tent and carried them to a nearby dwelling, which I assume belonged to her sister. I never ask what she gets up to when I am traveling, but I believe in the visible thumbprint of guilt, and after years of leaving, returning, and scanning her face for signs of mischief, I have determined that, as far as I can tell, my wife has never felt the smallest breeze across her conscience. This, of course, is foreign to me, and not a little bewitching.

“Will you miss me?” I asked, per usual.

“Not until you return,” she said with a smile.

We set out before the midday meal, packs filled with the stiff bread and dried meats customary on journeys, and now that we are an hour south of our camp, I begin to think not of my wife and her oddities or my compact with the chief, but of the green trail before us: the first warm gusts of March, the energy of the horses, the common exchanges between men of the same clan, and the prospect of something unusual on the horizon. Once my busy mind’s been freed from thoughts of the future — where I plan to go after the Creeks lose their particularity, and what the Royal Society might think of my scribblings — I can more thoroughly consider the fruits of this expedition.

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