Ridgeway is the principal antagonist of the novel. A renowned slave catcher, he represents the power, cruelty and almost inescapable reach of slavery. In his youth, Ridgeway struggles to find purpose. His blacksmith father worships iron, taking it as his life’s work to transform molten metal into useful tools. His father believes Ridgeway must find for himself the “Great Spirit” that will drive his working life, an expectation Ridgeway finds burdensome, as he sees no model for the kind of man he wishes to be. While his size and strength make him a natural recruit for hunting fugitive slaves, he cannot admire the way others use the job as an excuse for random violence. Chandler provides a useful example of a man who uses his body for the work rather than relying on guns, but even he indulges in stealing moonshine on raids in the backwoods. Although Ridgeway resents his father’s world view, he, too, is searching for a sense that his work uses his spirit and capabilities fully. 

Expanding his work to tracking runaways into the free states of the North gives Ridgeway the fulfillment he has been seeking. The legal and practical difficulties of the work engage his mind as the physical chase has engaged his body. The boots and coat he buys for himself bring satisfaction stolen whiskey does not, because he now sees himself as serving not just cotton, reclaiming human tools for cotton production as his father forges iron ones, but the whole “American imperative” of “property remaining property.” Ridgeway sees himself as defending not racism but the morality of ownership. Unlike other slavecatchers, he does not kidnap free Black people, pretending they are enslaved for the sake of reward money. After he buys Homer, he immediately frees him. When Ridgeway finds his sense of purpose, Whitehead uses an extended metaphor of iron forging to describe his role. He is not a smith like his father, making tools and maintaining order. He is instead “the heat,” the power that melts the iron. Ridgeway’s single-minded focus on tracking down particular people on the run becomes an obsession, driving him beyond the promise of reward money, even to his own death.