The Triumph of Law

By Phoebe Roberts

CARSON HILL, a Southern lawyer, twenties
JACKSON HILL, his father, also a lawyer, forties or fifties
PRESTON HILL, his uncle, a Georgia plantation owner, forties or fifties

Albany, New York, 1830s

(Three southern gentlemen in suits sit around a table. The two older men, brothers JACKSON and PRESTON HILL, celebrate with whiskey, while the younger man, CARSON HILL, sits staring moodily with his tumbler untouched before him.)

JACKSON: This is it, this is it! Carson, my boy, you’ve done it!

PRESTON: To states’ rights and Carson’s victory!

JACKSON: To the triumph of law!

(They cheer, raise their glasses, and drink. PRESTON then pours them another.)

JACKSON: Hill and Hill Associates… sweet Jesus, I always dreamed of this day. They’re going to be citing this case for decades to come. Any suit about returning runaway slaves, hell, any states’ rights case that comes along, they’re going to trot out Corbett versus the State of New York and that’ll be the end of it. This could be the making of your career already. Who knows what’ll come next? Judgeships, political office… hell, my boy could be a senator someday!

PRESTON: I always knew you’d take them Yankees by storm!

JACKSON: And you made quite an impression on your esteemed client as well.

PRESTON: I’m telling you, boy, it ain’t just anyone that Richard Corbett invites down to his plantation to meet his lovely daughter. Got a high estimation of you and no mistake.

CARSON: Must be.

PRESTON: And how about that Miss Lilah? Pretty little thing, wasn’t she?

CARSON: Sure was, Uncle Preston.

PRESTON: I hope you were a proper gentleman to her. If she takes a shine to you like her old man has, well, you might just get yourself in a position to inherit the whole place one day!

JACKSON: That’s quite a little kingdom to come into! Look at you, son, you’ll be a king in Georgia, and a conqueror in New York!

(They click glasses and laugh uproariously. CARSON forces a sickly smile.)

JACKSON: What’s the matter with you, now? You been frowning like a bullfrog ever since you got back. Things went well, didn’t they?

CARSON: Not certain I’d say that they did.

JACKSON: What? What happened?

CARSON: Been back east all this time, haven’t been on a plantation in so long. Wasn’t prepared.

PRESTON: For what?

CARSON: Seeing them. All the… all the slaves. Never saw so many before. Old ones, sick ones, covered with scars… pretty awful.

PRESTON: You’re from a plantation family, boy, you know we run on slaves.

CARSON: Yeah, but… I haven’t seen it, not with my own eyes…

JACKSON: Is that all that’s bothering you?

CARSON: No. I… I heard what happened to those boys.

JACKSON: What boys?

CARSON: Those boys we got sent back to Mr. Corbett.

JACKSON: You mean the runaways? What of them?

CARSON: I asked him what became of them when they got back. He told me he had them all killed.

(JACKSON is mildly surprised, but PRESTON shrugs.)

PRESTON: Did he, now? Well, sometimes it’s necessary. Make an example to the others.

CARSON: That’s exactly what Mr. Corbett said.

PRESTON: I’m sure he did. He knows how to run his own concern.

CARSON: We sent them back to their deaths.

JACKSON: Carson, be reasonable. Sometimes a man’s got to take drastic steps to take care of his own business. If he had to put a little discipline down—

(CARSON leaps out of his chair.)

CARSON: Pap! He beat them within an inch of their lives, and then he set a pack of dogs on them! They were ripped limb from limb!

PRESTON: Sure, that’s rough. But ain’t nobody going to run from that plantation anytime soon.

CARSON: Jesus Christ.

PRESTON: It’s the way of things.

CARSON: It’s sick.

JACKSON: What’s gotten into you, boy? Weak stomach all of a sudden? Well, you’d best get a handle on that if you’re going to move forward with your career.

CARSON: Can’t do it. Not anymore.

JACKSON: Can’t do what?

CARSON: I can’t… strut around Albany like I’m cock-o’-the-walk knowing that… this is what everybody respects me for. Fighting so hard to get five boys sent back to a whip and a pack of dogs.

JACKSON: Look here, now. I’m sorry you had to see the ugly side of things, but Carson, every case isn’t going be about slave law. You don’t got time to wrestle with a soft heart, you got a chance to make history here. You got to seize that chance while you can. This is just one case—

CARSON: No, Pap. You don’t understand. Everywhere I go, it’s all anybody can talk about. It’s the headline of every newspaper. How clever I was, how well I argued my case that the state was obligated to return Mr. Corbett’s property to him. “Congratulations, Carson.” “Job well done, Carson.” All I was thinking about was the law, and making it work for me, and the reward that would come once I did. But now… all I got is the blood of those boys on me. They wouldn’t have even been there if I hadn’t argued for it! And now they’re using my win as precedent for other cases against runaways. There are going to be others just like them. That’s my legacy, Pap. Sending boys back to Hell!

PRESTON: Jesus Christ, Carson!

JACKSON: Just what are you saying?

CARSON: I’m saying… I’m done. Done with the law, done with New York and Georgia, done with all of this. I’m moving out west. As far as out as I can go.

JACKSON: And why in God’s name would you do a thing like that?

CARSON: To get as far away as I can from all this. And from you.

(PRESTON leaps out of his chair and smacks CARSON across the face.)

JACKSON: Here now!

PRESTON: You ungrateful wretch! What are you going to do out on some dusty godforsaken frontier? There ain’t no law out there!

CARSON: So much the better.

PRESTON: Have you lost your mind!? What about your career?

CARSON: I don’t want a career built out of dead boys’ bones.

JACKSON: You’d throw everything you ever worked for away… and everything we gave you so you could get there? You were such a smart boy, Carson, you was destined for something big. At sixteen you graduated Harvard Law at the top of your class. Your uncle sent this case your way to help you make your fortune. And you made it, Carson, you made it so that every jurist in the country is going to know your name. This could take you anywhere— the Supreme Court, to Washington, even to the White House someday. And you’d throw it all away for a pack of runaway niggers!?

CARSON: No, Pap. For five murdered men.

(CARSON turns on his heel and storms out.)

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