The Excitement deserves to have a finish. The fallen characters deserve to be vindicated. The evil ones, held accountable.
The Excitement deserves to have a finish. The fallen characters deserve to be vindicated. The evil ones, held accountable.
The Town With Mean Eyes, Part 3
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
After the whipping, the good people in Town went home. They had seen enough. The less tender-hearted casually mentioned the hangings, of whether, or not, they would come back tomorrow for them. They would all come back. Those ten dollar killers heard that Claiborne was paying 2 dollars more for one last job so, whether the good folks witnessed it or not, the spectacle would continue.
The store owners sold their shelves bare. Items that hadn’t sold in twenty years sold for double the price during the bedlam. With shelves empty, they locked their doors to watch the punishment safely and discreetly, from behind their curtains.
Enterprising and crafty entrepreneurs began manufacturing things to sell. Little wooden gallows with ropes, pony whips, and lawman badges were hastily made and quickly sold to satisfy the crowd’s insatiable desire to hold a portion of the chastisement in their hands.
The church goers were all split on sadness and guilt, hard justice or tender mercy.
Though hundreds watched, cheered, and finally, became appalled at the penalty imposed against fair-mindedness, all walked away as Brandon Elam gathered up his brother’s body.
The first part of Howard Claiborne’s plan to keep control of his Town was complete but, the Grand Finale was yet to come. He had to get everybody’s attention. It was expected of him. He wanted everybody to know he was doing his part to maintain the County’s peace. He owned the power to do that and he meant to use it.
Through Kentucky and on the way back home to Tennessee, Mose had been hearing about the uprising in Dover from as far back as Lone Oak. He heard a white man was being whipped to death and he kept hearing of a slave rebellion but, he knew that couldn’t be right. When did a rebellion rise up?
His good news about Jeremiah smiling and waving goodbye from the Illinois side of the Ohio River was shrouded in the darkness of murder and mass murder in Town.
One man’s justice, one person’s decree, changed our world.
Tomorrow at six o’clock my man, Hilton Jacobs, those two Shake Town preacher boys; Pastor Jubal and his fiery young Minister Malachai, a well-to-do businessman from Clarksville, Horace Smith, who nobody knew of or why he was here, and 12 malcontented slaves, many separately but, all summarily convicted of Conspiracy to Rebellion by Judge Virgil Kaney, would be hung in the Town Square. Howard Claiborne would supervise it.
There would be no appeal.
This was the situation Mose came home to late Thursday night. Buck was stacking wood for a fire and I was driving the mules and the wagon into the barn when the dogs started barking. They let us know somebody was coming back down the trail. It was Mose, come hurrying. I told him the news. Luke Elam was already dead and they meant to kill 16 more tomorrow, including Hilton.
Mose just sat down. He didn’t say anything. In less than one week our lives had gone from couldn’t have been any better to couldn’t have been any worse. Old Mose finally spoke and said he would go to Town tomorrow, to try and see Hilton. Buck said he would watch guard with me at the farm and went to unhitch the livestock from the wagon. Mose went with him. They both knew it needed to be done. They didn’t say anything, they just did it. They took to each other like two old mules. They were just going through the motions.
I wouldn’t be going back to Town tomorrow. I would wait for what the Town would send me. I couldn’t watch the death of my man and I sure couldn’t watch it with people cheering. Christian people are supposed to treat each other better than that.
Mammy Jess went home. She held me with a stronger embrace and a sadder smile than from the morning before. She hugged me hard enough for two and fought back her tears.
My young boys slept well that night. I didn’t tell them their daddy wasn’t ever coming home. If I remember right I only slept for a little while that whole night of knowing what was about to happen. In my short sleep, I dreamed about Hilton. I dreamed I was old and I found him again. I dreamed we were both old and we were happy together. I knew that dream was a lie but I made myself believe it.
Woe to those who scheme iniquity, who work out evil on their beds! When morning comes, they do it, for it is in the power of their hands.
“Now, that wasn’t so bad was it, Virgil? After tomorrow, it will all be over. Everything can get back to normal without any more threat of a blasted rebellion. You protected our families, Virgil. You did a great service for this County and for our Town. You will always be remembered for how you helped to stop the rebellion and the indiscriminate killing of white people from here to Kentucky. The people are happy again, Virgil.” Howard Claiborne raised his glass and drank to Virgil Kaney. Thomas Opson, obligingly, joined in.
Virgil nodded, frowned a smile, and drank to himself. He wondered if all of these men really needed to die. He wondered if it would all add up, in the end. He figured in his wife and his home, he added his mistress and his indiscretions, he calculated it was worth it.
Later on, at the end of his life, Virgil Kaney went a little bit bat-crazy. Nobody ever knew if he was in his right mind or not. He mumbled a lot in his old age. He told that Claiborne gave him $3,000.00 dollars for that “whipping and hanging ruling”. If it was a lie he told it! He said it was his normal poker game cut for breaking a man. Nobody disputed him.
Howard Claiborne told Thomas Opson that he had one last job for him to complete before his farm could be free and clear of all liens held against it. Opson had one full day, he said, Friday, December 5th, 1856 to march as many furnace slaves as possible to the center of the county seat. Get them there as early and as expediently as workable but, before six o’clock in the evening, he demanded.
Thomas Opson sent mounted riders out before the break of dawn to every Iron Furnace in the County. They meant to force march, immediately, every slave man, slave-woman, and slave child, even if laying in their mama’s arms, to Dover to see the end of the rebellion.
It was wet and snowy throughout the County on that December Friday morning. The ground wasn’t yet cold enough or hard enough for any of the frozen flakes to make up on it but, before too much longer, it would be. An icy fog hung in the air that was thick enough to cut and the temperature dropped all day.
Muddy roads leading away from the Eclipse, the LaGrange, the Bear Spring, the Carlisle, and the Iron Mountain Furnaces were full of slaves trudging, sloshing, and enduring their way towards the center of Town. The Saline, the Bellwood, and the Cross Creek Furnaces each sent their slaves on a long walk with a ferry ride. The distant Rough and Ready slaves trekked, mostly, along the cold river road from Cumberland City. They barely made it in time for the excitement but, not to worry, Mr. Claiborne wouldn’t start it without them.
Dover is a hilltop Town. No matter how you approach it you will find yourself going uphill to get there. Those ferried, furnace slaves marched up the hill from the river. Those coming from the south marched up the hill from Lick Creek and those coming from the west were marched up the hill to Main Street to make a grand entrance into Town. They all came up together at the top of the bluff to witness the devil’s site in the square.
One hundred torches illuminated the county seat from every nook, every corner, every crook, and cranny. Even though it wasn’t yet dark, they all burned brightly in circling clusters of light. Smoke hung thick in the air and every slave stood helplessly where they were in the middle of Town and facing a ten man, freshly built, hanging gallows. Trees on either side of the gallows had three ropes each hanging from them to complete the mass misjudgment. All of the other trees in Town had people filling their branches the normal way, to get a better view. A large bonfire was burning so hot near the front of the prisoners that numbing cold quickly turned to beady sweat for the mass of humanity forced to stand, almost, on top of it.
Local citizens, as well as those from surrounding Counties, stood outside the circle of captives and they easily matched their count. Along with 500 riders, the total number of people present and gathering in the unholy square swelled to nearly 3,000. All of them waiting for Howard Claiborne’s show to begin.
He was like Julius Caesar in the Roman Coliseum.
By the time the Cumberland City Rough and Ready slaves were brought into Town, all of those 500 two-dollar gauchos were back. Their dirty guns lined the three streets coming into Town and they stretched fifty long on both sides. Howard Claiborne later admitted that the $1,000.00 he paid for the “hanging riders” was the best money he ever spent. He would remember that scene in Town for the rest of his life, he said. The people appreciated it, he boasted.
One thousand furnace slaves were herded into the Town Square in the late afternoon of December 5th, 1856. They were force marched there to witness the quelling of a rebellion. It was a rebellion that most of them knew nothing about. They were all, virtually, dirt poor and understood only one thing. Hard work stops the whip from coming.
Still, they stood there, in the mud and the cold, waiting for history to unfold.
For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.
Friday, December 5th, 1856.
Samuel woke up early that morning and said he would go on a quail hunt to get supper. He said he thought that would be one less worry for his daddy when he got back home.
That morning, for the first time, I saw a young man in my son. He surprised me outside by the wagon where Mose and Buck were hitching up the mules. I didn’t think he heard us talking about what was happening in Town but, I was wrong.
I thought he took his rifle and the dogs and headed into the trails because that was what I expected him to do. My mind was so fixed on what Mose would say to Hilton if he had the chance, that I forgot to notice what was going on around me. I was relieved that Samuel was going out hunting for supper. I didn’t want to have to tell him about his daddy that morning. I was hoping against hope that this was all a bad dream and Hilton would be coming home soon. I knew it was a false hope. Luke Elam’s cold body proved that to me.
I gave Mose a note to give to Hilton if he could. What do you say in a short note to the love of your life when you know they are about to die? I couldn’t write a book even though I wanted to. What could I say? It would never be enough. I wrote one simple line.
“When love is love, baby.” I sent that note by Mose to hand deliver to my man.
Mose made the hard drive to Dover with a heavy heart. I didn’t know and he didn’t know or suspect that he had a stowaway hiding in the side box of the wagon. Samuel had secretly removed the bridals, the martingale, and the remaining gear from the compartment and climbed inside. He reclosed the lid on top of himself and didn’t make a sound throughout the whole ride. Mose never even thought to look for a passenger because he was driving those mules harder to Town than ever before. He pushed them so hard he was just before hurting them. He wasn’t meaning to work them so hard but, he did. They gave him all they had as if they knew Mose had to get somewhere fast.
He only stopped one time.
Once the load passed the Great Western Mose bore down and he didn’t let up on those reins until they got to the bottoms past Gatlin Point road. There, he pulled the mules over for a short rest. He sat on the wagon’s seat for the longest time, with his head down. Mose was a strong man and he never showed much emotion. When he got down from his seat he walked aimlessly away stumbling, almost, from the wagon. He made his way toward the bank of a tobacco road. He collapsed where he stood. He just laid up on that hill like a little baby and cried so much the tears got mixed with leaves on the cheeks of his face. He cried right by that old road and the sticks from the ground got in his mouth. He moaned and cried until the sound of an owl screeching in the trees made him raise his head to look. He got up, brushed himself off, and pulled himself back onto the wagon. He was halfway slumped over for awhile, driving the short-rested team ever forward.
As Mose got closer to the excitement, he sat up straighter. He tightened up his coat and his hat, he wiped himself off, and he became more determined than ever to finish his sad journey.
Mose parked the wagon behind the new Elam house on the East side of Town and hurried inside. Brandon was glad to see him and had calculated that he would be there. On the expectation’s of Mose’s arrival, he and Judith made arrangements with two of the Deputies to allow Hilton to have a male visitor that afternoon. More than just her friend, Judith now owed Elly a return favor for her man and she meant to pay for it in a big way. The bribe fee for Mose to get into the cell with Hilton was 100 dollars for five minutes. Judith instructed Brandon to pay 1000 dollars for fifty minutes. She wanted more but the Deputies cut her off. They took her money for 15 minutes but, in the end, Mose didn’t even get 10.
Samuel had never seen such a sight. He heard it all outside the box first coming into Town. There were so many people, so many horses. Everybody and their rigs were moving in all different directions around him. He was more than a little scared. He saw crowds of people everywhere. They were playing games, they were having picnics, they were wrestling and racing horses. Young boys his age were all climbing trees in the Town to get a better view of whatever was about to happen. Samuel jumped out of his hiding place and brushed himself off like nothing had happened. He climbed himself up in the big Oak tree beside the Elam home. He just watched. It was like purgatory.
Samuel saw the hangman’s gallows. Up in the tree, he could see everything. He saw the gallows and he saw the hanging trees on either side of the gallows that also had ropes swinging from them. He watched the hundreds of slaves gathered in the middle of the Town Square as they swayed like the tide in waves, back and forth. The smoke and the horses driving them, incessantly, back toward the center of the Square. He was amazed at the size of the crowds all around the Town and the multitudes of men surrounding the jail. They were all cheering some hidden event that was happening there every few minutes. He prayed to God that his daddy wasn’t in that jail and one of those ropes wasn’t meant for him but, he was a smart young man. From what he had already heard and put together, he knew better. He wished he had never snuck on that damn wagon and come to Town.
Mose and Brandon set out from the house and headed toward the jail. Samuel watched but lost them in the crowd. He found them again near the doorway. He saw Brandon say and hand something to the deputy standing guard outside the door and Mose went inside.
“You got 15 minutes, boy.” That was all the soft skinned boy deputy told the 60-year-old man Mose.
Mose walked over to Hilton and took his hands. “It’s good to see you, Mose,” Hilton said and he smiled into Mose’s eyes. Mose didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to cry again. He just smiled back at Hilton with watery eyes. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the note that Elly had given him to pass to Hilton.
“Elly sent this,” Mose said.
Hilton held the note in his hands for a long time, looking at it, thinking about it. He tenderly caressed and softly rubbed and pressed his fingers over the charcoal impressions that Elly had set down on the paper. He kissed the paper and held it lightly in his hands. He said a prayer that only God heard and a tear of sadness fell from his eye and landed on the note. He sat the note down and wrote his reply on the back, “It’s you and me.”
Hilton gave the note back to Mose. “Thank you, Mose, for returning this to my wife. It will be all she has left of me. Watch out for my boys, Mose. I know you will. Teach them, Mose. That is the most important thing. Teach them everything you know. Send them away, if you have to, from this mean Town. They must learn all they can. It will be their best chance of making it in this country. Everything will be against them. I meant to teach them how to survive in this new land we have. A fine example I turned out to be.”
“You taught them well, Hilton. You taught us all well. I won’t let you down. I’ll see to your boys until I take my last breath. I’ll watch over Elly,” Hilton interrupted Mose.
“Elly is a strong, spirit-filled woman, Mose. You tell her that someday she must move on from me. She’ll need help raising those boys of mine and I know that. When that day comes Mose, you help her with that decision. She’s got to move on. I’ll see her again, over Jordan but, in this life, she’s got to do what she’s got to do to survive and to feed those boys.”
This time Mose interrupted Hilton.
“Your boys won’t ever go hungry, Hilton, not so long as I have a breath in me. As God is my witness that will never happen! Don’t you worry about your boys, Hilton.”
“I won’t, Mose. I know your word is true. I want you to tell Elly and my boys that I love them and that I said goodbye and that my thoughts were on all of them. I appreciate that, Mose. The chance to say goodbye. You tell Judith that Luke said to tell her goodbye. He told me that. Tell my babies I said goodbye. Tell them I love them.
“Time’s up boy,” the child deputy barked at Mose.
“God bless you, Mose.”
“God bless you, Hilton.”
Samuel saw Mose step from the jail not long after he went in and he watched as both he and Brandon now made their way back through the crowd toward the house.
We’re working through Part 3, Potneckers, and the end of Chapter 8.
Thanks to everyone for your interest.
The Town With Mean Eyes, Part 2
For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.
I don’t think I slept one minute that night Hilton didn’t come home. I laid in the bed with my boys near me and I held them close to my chest. All through that long night, I kept our three souls together as tight as I could. I needed to keep us close. I needed to feel the warmth of their skins on mine. I needed to feel their safety even if I couldn’t feel my own. I watched and listened to every breath they took and whether it was inside the house or out, I was aware of every little thing that made a sound.
Buck Porter made a bed of straw and blankets on the floor just inside the front door and he slept there. He laid to where nobody could come through the door without stepping over him. He kept his front hand on the wooden stock of a shotgun and his backside up against that door all night. He slept very little, from what I could tell. He puffed up several times throughout the night surveying every possible angle to the outside. Every now and again the moonlight reflected steel in the whites of Buck Porter’s eyes. I could see it as he canvassed back and forth, across the dark landscapes of our home. He stared with eyes that were used to searching through the night. He stared with eyes that knew what he was looking for.
Mose was still gone far away to Illinois with Jeremiah. I knew he wouldn’t be back until late Thursday night or early Friday morning, Lord willing. This had caught us all at a bad time. With Hilton and Mose around, we always had two good men on or near the farm. I felt safe like that. Now, with both of them gone, a runaway, Buck Porter, was the only man left to protect us. Due to his situation, it was necessary and best for him to stay out of sight. The poor man had been trying to find his family for four years and this was his welcome home. I wouldn’t have expected him to fight. He didn’t owe us anything. But, if anything did come up or if some stray evil doin’ riders did happen along, I got the feeling that Buck Porter was here for the fight. From what I heard and how he was acting, I didn’t see him backing up from anybody.
If it had been any other man than Buck Porter I wouldn’t have left my boys with them but, I had no choice. I could tell Buck was a good man. He cried when I told him about his wife, as I knew her, about her funeral, and where she was buried. He said he wanted to start off this morning like he started off every morning, with a Prayer to find his wife and his son. He said he would soon find his wife and that prayer would be answered. He prayed for his son, Jeremiah, and for Mose’s safety. He prayed I would find Hilton. He prayed for me and my boys. He finished praying and he said he felt like this was his home.
He spoke from his heart.
Samuel took right to Buck and hugged him three times that morning for his help and for who he was. He kept calling him, “Jeremiah’s Daddy” and it seemed to help ease Buck through the pain of losing his only beloved. I took that as a good sign and trusted him.
I needed his help. I knew I needed it to protect my children. I would need to see them safe before I could rescue my man. If I could just see Hilton if I could just talk to him, he would tell me everything would be alright. I needed to hear him say that. I needed to hear him say that alright day would come. I could make it till then.
Cedar Pond was just a quarter mile up the hill towards Kentucky so I had Samuel run up there early, even before the sun was all the way up and get Mammy Jess to come sit with the baby. Buck was a fine man but, it had been a long time since Jeremiah was that little. I needed Mammy Jess to be with my youngest one. She came right back, almost before I knew it.
Buck and I were just finishing hitching the mules up to the wagon when she came hurrying back down the trail. Samuel towed in behind her. She knew Luke and Hilton were in the Dover Jail. She knew I needed to be going there. She was our Mammy and I trusted her with my children and I trusted her with my life. Mammy Jess was out of breath when she came into the house but, she sat down right next to the baby. She already knew where everything was so I told her the baby was fed and I would be going alone into Town to see about Hilton. I hoped to be back before nightfall but, it could be later, I told her. Buck would take Samuel fishing over the hill past Cedar Pond and down into the long hollow towards the Kentucky bottoms. It was a good 3 miles down to the bottoms through the long hollow but, once they reached there they would be 3 miles into Kentucky and hidden safely away from the riders.
Mammy Jess smiled a sad smile trying to encourage me and she hugged me hard saying the babies would be fine with her. She said not to worry about them and she would look for me and Hilton when she saw us coming. Everything would be alright here, she promised. I knew, for her part, it would be.
Buck and Samuel set out for the backcountry river bottoms of Kentucky and I set out for Dover. It wasn’t much past the sun being up when I passed the Great Western. It was also about that time when the first bunch of spirited riders raced by me. There were four or five of them, coming from the north, and they were making a hard drive towards Dover. I kept my animal’s pace steady and true and by the time I reached the west side of the outskirts of Town at least three more packs of those wild riders had dusted past me without so much as a slowdown. I didn’t know who they were or what they were after but it gave me a scared, anxious feeling inside. I noticed more and more of them as I got closer to Dover. The grotesque number of those horses and riders showing out for one another made the Town look like a circus show. Horses were everywhere, spilling out of the streets and trails on all sides. They were bursting at the seams and their riders were wreaking havoc on the compass of the county, the center square.
I tried to control my team and steer them towards the Court House but, all I could see, all I could feel were the sounds and flarings of horse nostrils and ears and the push of horse flesh all around me. The pressing of the sweat of a hundred steeds, nags, and ponies packed up against me and pushed me into the sway of the Town and it swallowed me whole. They pushed me back and they threw me forward, they lifted me, sometimes, off the ground. The multitude of men seemed not to see me, or worse, not even to care. They cavalierly bucked their mounts up on hind legs in a show of unbridled and unharnessed power. It was no safe place for a woman in a mule wagon.
As I worked to hold my spot in the road and get closer to the Court House, the horses around me began to ground into my stalwarts, Doc and Dave. They started to bite my boys and were kicking them. They bumped into them and banged them hard and spooked them up into a scared madness. I was trying to whip them off of us but, the abused equines crashed into the side boards of my wagon, cracking them with their weight. I was losing control. The wagon was being scooted sideways and trying to turn over. The mules would run to daylight if they could but, there was none they could see. We were at the mercy of the gathering horde.
Just as my mule team began to overwhelm me, just as they began to get away from me, Brandon Elam came out of nowhere, astride his horse, and jumped right over next to me on the wagon seat. He grabbed the reins from my hands.
“Hold on to me, Elly,” he yelled as he turned that team around on a hatpin. In an instant, he had us heading back out of Town and away from the mashing horse melee. Doc and Dave understood that they were being driven away from the danger, away from the distress, and they complied with the whip. They stampeded past the bigger animals still holding steadfast in their path.
“Are you alright?” Brandon asked me as we pulled down a somewhat more serene Church Street.
“Yes, I’m alright,” I answered. “Thank you, Brandon. I thought I could get through.”
“Judith has been here all night trying to see Luke and those evil bastards won’t let her see him,” Brandon spoke with a fight in his words. “I will take you to her and we will plan our action. Luke and Hilton are still in the Jail and no one can see them. There is a rumor that there will be a Court appearance for them this afternoon.”
Brandon guided Elly into the new home he and Luke now owned on the west side of Town. Judith Elam welcomed her in with a trembling hug and some news.
“We’ve just received word that Judge Kaney is having our men brought up from the jailhouse, Elly. It may be our only chance to see them. I’m afraid we must go back out into this wild, horse’s ass town.
Thanks to Howard Claiborne, we will have to fight our way over to the Court House. He put the word out in six counties and across two states that he would pay a 10 dollar gold piece to any, please excuse my language, half-cocked piss ant, still wet behind the ears bushwacking rider, with a borrowed horse. They have come here from the four corners of the earth just to roust out the slaves at the County’s Furnaces.” Judith Elam identified the mission of the newly expanded Committee of Safety.
She continued, unabridged. “These low-bred hired out-of-county gun hands have already spent five of their ten dollars getting drunk and now most of them are fighting and gambling over the other five. They stand between us and our men, Elly. That crooked Judge Virgil Kaney has been absent throughout the night. We have constantly been inquiring as to his whereabouts. Thomas Opson is in Town and in charge of this spectacle. He’s been on the River Boat side of the Dover Hotel all night long drinking and gambling. He told Brandon that Kaney was in Clarksville and unavailable until later this week but now it is announced he has suddenly appeared to hold court. Imagine that, Elly?”
“Brandon, shall we take the wagon?” Judith Elam was also on a mission.
“Yes,” Brandon answered. “We’ll take Hilton and Elly’s team. They are hitched up just outside. There is not a minute to spare. The Court will quickly say what it has to say and then it will close back down and nothing else will be settled. The particulars will high-tail it back out of Town just as fast as they came in and they’re hoping we won’t be there so, let’s go, now.”
We hurried back out to the wagon and the fear gripped me. Judith was trembling like she had already lost her man and it scared me. Was I going to lose my man, too? For the first time, holding Judith, I got scared for my man and I didn’t feel anything good about that trip over to the Court House. Brandon drove our wagon and mules straight through that side road full of hired, stinking horse flesh. If they had riders mounted, I didn’t know it. All I smelled was horse sweat and tanned leather. Every so often I whiffed a scent of cowardice in the air. Those ten dollar killers were cheap and plentiful but, we fought through all of them. Brandon parked us right up on those Court House steps and we were lifted through the doorway by the rush of people pushing in. They had been told the same news as us.
The prisoners were being brought up.
When we got into the Court Room where we could see what was going on it was like a mad house. There was no order. Everybody was standing up and talking and people were yelling back and forth across the room to one another. The windows were closed and a fire was burning in the stove but, it was still cold in there.
The side door at the front of the courtroom opened and Thomas Opson sashayed in. He busted through with eight of those hired riders. In a full show of force and protection, four of them took one side of the Judge’s Bench and four of them took the other side. Opson stood by his Chair.
“All Rise,” the Bailiff ordered, and said something else about the Judge as he hurried in.
I didn’t know what else he was saying. I didn’t care.
“Be seated,” the Judge quickly directed. He cut in so fast at the end of the bailiffs’ speech that you thought he somehow knew it was over.
“Bring in the prisoners,” he ordered.
All the men were brought in chained to one another. Luke and Hilton were chained together at the front of the line. Right behind them followed that famous underground negro preacher from over in Shake Town. His young preacher boy apprentice stood tall behind him. They were all in chains. There was one well-dressed negro in the line who looked to be caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He looked so sad. Eight other poor souls trailed at the end of the sad line of bondage. Their only guilt an enduring will to escape the indignity of forced slavery.
I hadn’t seen my man in chains in over ten years but, now it seemed like it was only yesterday. Those chains seemed to weigh heavy on Hilton. He thought he had put them out of his mind. We hoped we had outgrown them but Howard Claiborne’s law saw that they still fit. His law reminded us that these chains would always be just a keylock away from keeping us down. My man looked out to see me and he forced a smile and a nod in my direction. At first, it was all I got from him. It was all they allowed. Judith didn’t even get that. Luke was still groggy and moving slow with a bulging bruise on the side of his head. The blood draining from the wound was now dry and it stained his shirt. He tried to look around. We couldn’t tell if he was looking for Judith or just trying to figure out where he was. He was looking out of one squinting eye but, you could tell he wasn’t completely healed up. I don’t believe he ever saw her.
The Judge called Luke’s name. I don’t think Luke ever truly understood what was going on. He looked at the lawyer from Clarksville that was representing him and attempted to get his attention but they did not directly speak.
“In the case of Stewart County vs. Luke Elam, Docket Number 56-12-4. Mr. Elam, please rise. Count 1. You are charged with aiding and abetting escaped slaves. To wit, you feed them and clothe them, you aid them and help them along a trail north, through Kentucky. You secure their escape. Count 2. Conspiracy to Incite Rebellion. You have given these slaves hope. You’ve caused any reasonable man to believe that they would, of course, by any means, seek the freedom you describe. That is not how we conduct business around here, Mr. Elam and I would expect, since you are a local boy, that you should already know that. I’m glad your daddy isn’t here to see this,” the Judge was compelled to announce.
“Now, this Conspiracy to Rebel is a very serious charge, Elam. These eight deputies will swear that you led an attack on them in that hollow. How do you plead?”
“That’s not true!” Hilton interjected from behind Luke Elam. “He led no such…”, but, the COS man closest to him planted a rifle stock in his stomach. Hilton collapsed back down in his seat.
“No more outbursts in this Courtroom,” Kaney banged his gavel. “Plead, Elam!”
“Not guilty!” Luke Elam struggled to shout. “I demand to see the evidence against me. These accusations are baseless and without merit. We led no such rebellion. We were fishing.”
Luke Elam was cut off. “Enough of that, Mr. Elam,” the Judge disregarded. “The evidence against you is overwhelming. We have six COS riders that have sworn upon their oath that you tried to kill them!”
“We were only protecting ourselves from these vigilantes, Judge. They came in with guns blazing. We did not draw the first weapon. How was I threatening them?” Luke Elam argued.
“What do you have to say about that, Constable Opson?”
Thomas Opson stood up tall to address the Judge. “We had to fire warning shots, Judge. They were all fired into the air and I will say that. We noticed a child with them on the spring’s bank and any shots fired directly in the vicinity of the crowd was in defense of that child. We ALL saw that runaway slave, we have his evidence but, he disappeared into thin air. He was in close proximity to the child before we lost him and we felt like we needed to protect the child. We tried to protect the children everywhere we went yesterday. It was not our intent to harm any one of those little rascals, Judge, in the squashing of this rebellion.”
“Your honor, we haven’t even established any attack, as yet, by my client on anyone.” Luke’s counsel pleaded. “There was no crowd. I reject this notion that he is now leading a rebellion. I move to have that stricken from the Record.”
“Well, see here, Counselor.” the Judged swayed the Court’s focus to the young defense attorney, “We were having a Rebellion and your Client was caught right in the middle of it. What does that look like to you, Sir?”
“Your Honor, this Rebellion you speak of was of your own making and sprung up wherever your Committee Riders chose to spring it up,” the young lawyer from Clarksville nervously submitted. After clearing his throat, he continued. “My client wasn’t conspiring to incite a rebellion. The rebellion was incited upon him! They were fishing, Your Honor.”
“Where is the child? Where is the slave?” the Judge asked Opson.
“We don’t know, Judge. They disappeared. We brought the remnants of that runaway’s clothing to prove that me and these four, duly appointed and sworn, deputies before you will solemnly swear that they know what they saw.”
“It wasn’t a slave, Judge,” the informed lawyer from Clarksville adjudicated. “That man was a local. He had a farming accident and was in the process of returning to his quarters to change his clothes. They were afraid for the child, your Honor, as they were being shot at. The local hand took the young boy with him as he was, presumably, his own son. They disappeared around a well-hidden path, your Honor. There is no crime in going home. The COS riders knocked my client out cold before he could defend anything.”
“What of that, Opson? the Judge crossed.
“That’s crazy, Judge.” Opson was relaxed like he was talking to a friend. “He lunged at all of us. I didn’t know who was in danger the most. For a second, we all were. If we hadn’t of knocked him out, he could’ve gotten one of us, easily.”
“I’ve heard enough,” the Judge declared.
“Luke Elam, you are, hereby, found guilty of aiding and abetting slaves in a manner to strengthen them and free them to gain a great distance apart from their legal owner which is a Felony in the above-titled offense. You are, hereby, found guilty of Conspiracy of Rebellion which is a very serious offense also, Mr. Elam, and it, too, is a Felony made in the act of committing another Felony. That proves civil unrest in the face of a mob rebellion and that gets you a more severe punishment than this Court normally allows to dispense but, we are hesitant and mindful of the excitement of such a momentous occasion. We do not make this Judgement lightly and we do not expect it to be taken lightly. You are, hereby, Luke Elam, sentenced to 100 lashes at the stocks in the center of Town at 4 o’clock today, December 4th, 1856!”
“NO!” Judith Elam screamed and collapsed to the floor.”
“That’s a death sentence, Kaney! You can’t give him that! You will kill him, Kaney! What in the hell are you doing?” Brandon yelled across the tumult of the room.
“Silence that man or he will be held in contempt of Court! Arrest them ALL if ANY of them make another outburst.” the Judge held order and Brandon moved up by the lawyer.
My man looked at me and shook his head, no, telling me to stay calm.
“Luke Elam,” Kaney continued, “to coincide with the previous judgment of 100 lashes you are, hereby, additionally sentenced to one year in the County Jail.”
As shocked as we were, Judith was still fainting on the floor, Brandon was one step closer to the Judge’s neck, and the room resembled a county fair, I saw none of it. I heard nothing in it. I could only hear my man’s heart beating from across the room. He could feel mine, too. I saw only him and he saw only me. We locked ourselves together in an unbroken, protected sight. We held on to this moment in our minds for a long time. We held it way on up until the music of the callous courtroom calliope streamed back in, falling into our ears and filling us up with the voices of backwoods country death. It knocked us apart.
“Hilton Jacobs, you are, hereby, found guilty of aiding and abetting the escape of our slaves out of the State and guilty of conspiring to attack sworn deputies doing their job to stop you. You are sentenced to be hung by the neck until you are dead at 6 o’clock tomorrow night, Friday, December 5th, 1856. All of these other men are, hereby, found guilty of Conspiracy of Rebellion and sentenced to be hung by the neck until dead tomorrow at 6 o’clock. This Court is adjourned.”
No! NO! I wanted to scream and wail and curse this Town but Hilton locked his eyes on mine and told me to sit still be quiet. SHUT UP, you negro woman was something I did not want my husband to hear right now. We had precious seconds left to remember our life together. I didn’t know that at the time and sometimes, I’m glad I didn’t know it. In those slim seconds, I didn’t think about the separation to come, the loneliness, the pain, the distress that would follow. I only thought about the good times, the happy times. I thought about the grapevines and the Sunday mornings.
“All rise,” the Bailiff ordered.
The crowd got up but, we just sat there, stunned. The Judge slammed his books closed and jumped up out of his chair and away from the bench. Even with all the extra added protection, he was still aware that many did not approve of his decisions. He was more than a little nervous. That front side door opened back up and, right on cue, Kaney bailed through it. His robe was flowing wildly as he hustled by his riders. He snagged an agent’s spur on the way out and it spun the provocateur around backward before he could rip himself loose. The Judge left part of his robe on the floor.
I stood up, numb. What just happened? Hilton blew me a kiss and I tried to blow him one, too, but I couldn’t find my mouth. I was shocked, I was paralyzed.
After the ruling, our men were led back out of the Court House and down to the jail. Those riders just packed them up and took them all away. We had no way left to fight after that. They took our voice and our strength. It was the plan. Over time, they take away your soul.
Together, Judith Elam and I walked out the door of the judgment-hall. The sea parted and the multitudes divided and we walked straight through that mob with our heads held high. No one said anything until we left the room. Then, a mighty cheer rose up from inside the cold court. They were glad our men were dying. They were glad they had killed our way of life. It was a demon to them.
The loud cheer in the Court Room only preceded the booming cheer we heard on the square. All of those hoodwinkers who bet on the hanging of the negroes had won their five dollars back and they could go home in style.
Judith was tired of it all and had seen enough. She stood up on her wagon outside the Court House and in the middle of the Town square. From that vantage point, she was taller, she was higher up than anyone else in the street. After the loudest cheer, she screamed out at the poorly bred mass of men. They had no choice but to listen.
“I know you! I know all of you,” she bent their ears hard. “I know your mothers and your fathers. I’ve seen you on these streets and in our churches. I’ve seen you down by the river for food celebrations and in our shops. I buy and sell your tobacco, your cotton, and your clover. Don’t you realize what you are doing? You are cheering for the death of freedom. You are drunken on wine and mystery and most of you don’t even know why you are here.” She was berating the multitude. “The rest of you should be ashamed of yourselves. You are killing the finest among you and you are too drunk with stupidity to realize it and the saddest part of this whole ordeal is that I know ALL OF YOU!” she screamed. I know all of you,” she cried.
Judith Elam went home. They would not let her see her man. She did not want to see him whipped to death. She knew 100 lashes was a death sentence. They would not let her see her man so she went home.
“You watch out for my man, Elly,” Judith begged me before she left. “Make sure to give him that special prayer when he needs it the most. I’ve got to go home, Elly, and wait to see how they bring him to me.
“I will, Judith,” I said as I held her hand’s goodbye.
Beware that your hearts are not deceived and that you do not turn away and serve other gods and worship them.
Howard Claiborne waltzed into the jail to meet with Luke Elam. The meeting wouldn’t last long. Claiborne had other things to do and he would have his answer, either way, in just a few minutes.
“Just come to work for me, boy,” he extended. “I’ll buy the Great Western. We’ll run it my way. Nobody has to get whipped here today, son. Let’s do this for your father and for my friend. You’ve got a way out, boy. Take it.”
“I will not fight for slavery.” Luke stood. “I won’t work for you.”
Howard Claiborne drew his eyebrows tightly together and his eyes closed to a beady, smirky leer. He pursed his lips and took in a deep breath through his nose before he spoke.
“You think you are so righteous, don’t you, boy? There will always be slavery and you better get used to it. There will always be some kind of slavery in this world. The powerful people need it. It’s like a concoction they drink to survive. We will have our power, Elam. If not human slavery there will be debt slavery. In some way, men will be owned. Slavery? It’s just another word for power and it comes in many forms and many colors. There will always be owners and there will always be slaves.
You best decide which side of the chain you want to be on, Elam.”
With a lost smile, Claiborne added one final remark. “I do admire your conviction, boy. You are a Page, after all. I’ll tell Opson to go easy on you. We’ll get you through those 100 lashes and you can go home in a year. You’ll be all healed up by then. I can do that.”
Outside the cell room, Howard Claiborne spoke quietly to Thomas Opson. “Kill him at 50.” was all he said.
Brandon was fit to be tied. “Luke, I’m not going to let them do it. I will bring my rifle and Mackie James and as many men as it takes and we will stop this. I will not let them kill you, Luke. We will kill them first. What’s the difference? Why do they get to choose who lives and who dies? Why can’t we choose? We even have the truth and God on our side. Why do you have to die? Why do you have to be whipped? I’m not going to let it happen!”
Brandon Elam clenched as tight as he could his brother’s forearms through the bars of the Stewart County Jail. He clenched and spoke through his teeth with wild eyes begging for his brother’s approval.
Luke Elam sat on a stool in his cold cell. Brandon was on his knees, pleading. He held his brother tight. Hilton Jacobs watched from the next cell.
“Why can’t I just kill them?” Brandon Elam wanted to know.
“Because the Governor won’t see it that way, my precious brother. Thomas Opson and Howard Claiborne will always have the backing of the badge. No matter how many innocent people they kill, no matter how many lives they destroy, they will always have the backing of the law. If you kill them the next higher law will come. You can’t win.”
“But, we’ll get the people to stand with us, Luke! The people will stand with us and say this was wrong. We will say we had to stop it. We couldn’t just let you get whipped to death and 10 other men hung in a massacre. For God’s sake, Luke.”
“You ask too much of the people, Brandon. They must protect themselves but, most of all, they must protect their own children. That’s tough to do in this Town. There is always another Howard Claiborne. There is always another Thomas Opson. They are cheap men, easily bought, with no morals. Everyone has a petty tyrant like that in their lives. Someone they fear. The people will not come for us, Brandon. They can’t. They are very sorry but, they can’t. We are third on their list to help. We must understand this. Wheels turn slowly in this County. Justice comes in tear drops. It comes one hard cry after another. Someday, my brother, people will remember what happens here. It may take 50 years. It may take 100 years. If you die, too, my brother, our story will never be told. Keep yourself alive and remember well what happens here. You must tell it. You must tell our story. Help keep Hilton’s memory alive and help keep my memory alive. Remember the Great Western. Tell of her glory and tell of her sadness. You must tell the people how to make it better.”
Brandon Elam released the death grip he had on his brother’s arms. He saw the calmness in Luke’s face and it helped him to breathe. His brother had released him. He had set him free of guilt. He had absolved him from any vengeance against his death or against his killers. He told him to fight in a different way. It was a way that could not immediately be won but, he would win it, his brother assured. He would not kill Thomas Opson or Howard Claiborne today. Today, he would fight it his brother’s way. It was his last wishes. He would fight it by telling the story. He had to live to do that. He would tell the story first but, he swore to his brother after the story was told after the history was written, he could not make any guarantees about the two of them. I’ll get those bastards,” he promised.
“Time to go, Elam.” Thomas Opson slammed the cell open. “Just so you know, this is not personal, Elam. We just have a difference in personalities.”
Thomas Opson led Luke Elam through 500 people to the stocks in Town. He ripped the shirt off his back to reveal a lily white skin that had never seen the sun. He wrapped and tied his strong arms tightly around the higher stocks to where Luke had only inches to fall. He would expose his back fully to the whip.
Luke Elam remembered the first day he met his wife. She was so beautiful. She was such a hard worker. Judith Elam was the gift of his life. He remembered his wedding day. They were married on a summer’s day and he remembered they both had to go to the field to work that afternoon. He remembered their happiness and how they slept well that night, too tired for a celebration. He remembered every single birth date of his children. He remembered when his oldest boy was born. He was in the field and he had to come in. He remembered it was the best harvest that year they ever had. He remembered it was cold when his youngest boy was born and he had to keep a fire going in the house. He remembered that his wife made him keep that fire lit up well into April. It was the warmest he ever felt. He remembered the beautiful spring day that his daughter was born. The Azaleas were blooming red and white with bumble bees all around. The honeysuckle smelled so nice. She was such a blessing.
Luke remembered how when he was young and very sick his mama would spare no moment to nurse him back to health. He nearly died from the fever when he was six but, her work saved him. She brought him back to life with her love. She brought him back from the edge of death. She willed him back, many said and Luke knew this. He always swore that on that night when he was the sickest, he dreamed he was floating up high in his room. He looked down to see his mama praying over him. He didn’t know why she was so worried and haggard over him. He felt fine. He said he flew back down into his body so he could wake up and tell his mama he was okay. He loved his mama.
Luke remembered the first time he realized he would never be like his father. Cross Elam wanted to whip a slave just to show his son how it was done. He picked a slave he didn’t particularly like, Nester Steel, and made up a charge on him. He had Nester placed in the stocks down by the barn. He whipped him hard twice and handed Luke the whip. Luke was eleven.
Luke and Brandon’s older brother, Wicks Elam, had just been killed in the War. The War of 1812. Andy Jackson’s War. They say Wicks was a dead ringer for old man Cross, alike in every way and Cross didn’t just love his oldest boy, he worshiped him. Wicks Elam loved to whip slaves and Cross wanted Luke to be just like his brother. Luke Elam didn’t want to whip Nester Steel. He knew Nester hadn’t done anything. Even if he had done something, he still didn’t want to whip him.
His daddy screamed at him. “WHIP HIM!”
Luke whipped Nester Steel, hard, one time. As hard as an 11-year-old could. He was sorry for that every day for the rest of his life. He could never look Nester in the eye again after that because he was ashamed. For 35 years he felt ashamed. Finally, before old Mr. Nester died, Luke went to him, crying. He apologized for whipping him. He was so sorry, he confessed. He begged Nester for forgiveness. Nester gave it to him. He told him it was the lightest whip he ever took and Nester laughed about it. Still, Luke never got over it. He understood now that this was his atonement for whipping Nester Steel. He deserved it.
Luke remembered the time he and Brandon wanted to cook their mama a dinner because she took sick. They thought she worked too hard, so they wanted to help. They fished all day in a spot where the Crappie sat thick. They brought home all they could carry and cooked up so much fish that they ate it for two days. By the time the fish was gone, mama felt better. They had so much fun those two days, waiting on their mama. She sat up and ate fish with them and she let them wait on her. They all slept well that night and he remembered his mama’s happiness. He remembered his mama’s smile. He wanted to go to sleep now.
Elly remembered her promise to Judith. At first, she stood deep within the vaguely insensitive crowd as it watched a white man get whipped to death for aiding a negro. The people cheered at first. That was what they were supposed to do. But, as Thomas Opson kept whipping and yelling and Luke Elam kept dying, they didn’t seem to like it so much. The cheering stopped half-way through. Their mean eyes turned to eyes of shock and disbelief but, it was too late. Sighs of agony rose up from the crowd with every new snap of Opson’s bloody whip. Seventy-five lashes in and the crowd said, enough! But Thomas Opson was not finished. Disappointed that he couldn’t complete his task in fifty lashes as Howard Claiborne had instructed, he doubled up at the end. Instead of letting up to ensure at least a hopeful chance for survival, he whipped Luke Elam even harder.
Elly moved to the front of the line of stone hardened expressions to see Luke’s face. He was a good man. He had always done good and he was a God-fearing man. She knew he deserved better than this. She knew we all did. Elly was surprised at what she saw. Even at 50 lashes, Luke Elam still seemed to be smiling. His face was beautiful. He didn’t flinch with any of the leather slicings into his skin. He was at peace. She didn’t understand that. How could he not feel the pain? She thought he needed that prayer from Judith now. She moved as close to him as she could and began to pray. She mentioned his wife, she mentioned his boys, she mentioned his daughter. Elly saw Luke Elam open his eyes one last time. He looked directly at her and smiled. Then, he closed his eyes forever.
Is this how my man will die, Elly cried.
Brandon Elam did not go home. He watched every whip snap levied unto his brother and he noted it well. After it was over he gathered up his brother’s body. He washed it and he dressed it in white linens to be sent home to his wife, Judith. Elly rode home in the wagon with Luke’s sons and Luke body. They presented Luke Elam to Judith and then Elly drove her mules slowly to the ferry. She would go home now and wait for her man.
With the ancient is wisdom, and in length of days understanding.
Brandon Elam went to the jail to be with Hilton Jacobs.
“Luke is gone, Hilton.” He said to his friend.
“He led a life well-lived, a life well-remembered, and a life well-sacrificed. I hope I have sacrificed enough.” Hilton was speaking for all time now. “You remember me, Brandon. You remember me to my children and my wife.
We are of a different time, we are not meant for this time. We are brothers in arms but, only in God’s arms. This time of man is not right for us. It wasn’t right for me and Luke to get along. It wasn’t right for us to work together, not this time. If it were right it would be so. Those mean eyes are coming for me tonight. They will come for us all, eventually. You watch your back, Brandon Elam.”
“If not now, when, Hilton? When can we come together?” Brandon hoped against hope. “You and Luke proved for all time that it is meant for us to work together, to endure together. We need each other to survive, to get through, to reach the promised land.”
Brandon Elam understood the importance of his words. He knew it was just as important for him to say them as it was for Hilton to hear them. Brandon had to remember them.
“What you do and what you say here is no longer for the benefit of you and I. What you think or what I think about this does not matter. It is history now that you step into and it was history that we marched through today. What has happened and what will happen will be written down for the ages. These minutes are out of our hands now, Hilton. We can’t stop them from happening although God knows we have tried. You are now and forever going to be what you are, Hilton Jacobs, a strong and proud man. You always have been and you always will be. That is why you are loved and that is why you are martyred. That is why you will be remembered.
You have no quarrel with these men but, they mean to kill you. They mean to kill you and anyone else that gets in their way. They proved that today by killing Luke.
If God grant me the miracle of seeing another sunrise, I make this solemn promise to you, Hilton Jacobs, as God is my witness you will not be forgotten. I can’t stop this mob. My death would only follow Luke’s and precede yours. But, you believe this, Mr. Hilton, as you face history. I can’t help you now but I will help you forever. Your children’s children will call your name when they speak of courage. When they feel low or uninspired, if they become discouraged or distressed they will call on the memory of your name to lift them, to give them strength, and to guide them. Stand proud, Hilton Jacobs. Stand tall. You are the patriarch of heroes. You are the father of champions. History will take you now but, don’t feel cheated. You take history with you. You will be remembered, Hilton. I am proud to stand by you.” Brandon embraced his friend’s shoulders.
“I am proud to be a man, Brandon. Luke died a man today. I plan on dying like a man tomorrow. I am sorry I will never see my wife and children again. I am sorry that I die for no other reason than to make someone else feel important. It is no fault of ours what happens here tonight. God grants us our unalienable rights and because of that, I don’t feel so bad fighting for them. Because I believe that, I will die with a restful spirit.
We can’t change the minutes of tonight, Brandon. I know that. But, we can change the hours of tomorrow. I’ve thought a lot today about this walk Luke and I are taking. I’ve cried, I’ve cussed, and I’ve called on the name of the Lord to pull me away to a safer place. But, do you know the truth? The truth is He’s going to take me away to a safer place. The sad part, Brandon, is that my family will still be in danger. How long before they can feel safe? How long before they can be safe? If you can do one thing for me, Brandon, do this. You keep my family safe. Move them away from here if you have to. Move them far away from this Town with mean eyes. Will you do that for me, Brandon?”
“I’ll do that and more. I promise,” Brandon answered his friend.
“That will be enough, Brandon, you’ll see.”
The End of The Excitement Ch. 8 The Town With Mean Eyes Part 2 .
Wow, Potneckers, that was a BIG part 2! Part 3 of Chapter 8 will follow soon. As a reminder, I hope you are scrolling way down almost to the bottom of this website to start reading The Excitement. Get the FULL flavor! Start from the beginning.
The Black Doll is a short story I decided to complete to help me get over my xenophobia of completing The Excitement. (Laugh, out loud.)
In The Black Doll as well The Excitement, hope springs eternal. The good will overcome the bad and what is left will be really good.
Don’t kill the really good. That goes with all things in life, literature, and love.
With that, my friends and intelligence, I give you, finished, The Black Doll.
This will allow me to finish Chapter 8 of The Excitement, The Town With Mean Eyes.
God Bless You All and Happy 2016!
Please scroll down to read THE EXCITEMENT
THE BLACK DOLL
Earthy closed her eyes and pushed the bed covers up under her chin with warm hands. Outside, the wind blew cold against the logs and shuttered windows of her sheltered cabin. Under her pillows and quilts, she lay, comfortable and safe. Polly nudged her from behind and they snuggled together in a shared warmth. Today will be a good day, Earthy thought.
Polly and Earthy weren’t really sisters, but you couldn’t tell them that. They spent every waking moment together. Every sleeping moment, however, was a separate matter.
Two, or three times a week and every Saturday at bedtime, Polly walked quietly and heroically from her own room through the breezeway of her house and across the yard where she entered into the slave quarters of Miss Mainey and Mr. Carzie Sneed. They were Earthy’s parents and this is where Polly chose to sleep, with her big “sister”.
Dorothy Sneed was two years old when Polly was born. As Polly and Dorothy grew, so did the bond between them. But, bless her little heart, Polly could never, in her youngest years, learn how to pronounce Dorothy’s name correctly. It always came out, “Earthy”. Dorothy didn’t mind. Even when her mama and daddy teased her with it, she liked it. So, Earthy was born and Dorothy McAfee Sneed became a name regulated only to those moments when the tone and pitch of mama’s voice changed.
The girls were inseparable. Except, at bedtime.
Polly would sleep every night with her sister if she could, but her father, the master of the farm, would not allow it. This secret sleeping arrangement was a carefully crafted compromise struck between two caring mothers whose only desire was to keep peace in the house after the sun gave way to the moon and the stars.
Every night for the first several years of her life, Polly cried herself to sleep. Father’s lap helped. The rocking chair helped. Mother’s soothing voice singing and humming the lullaby of her childhood helped but, after all was said and done, when Polly’s little head met the pillow in the quiet of the deep, dark night, the silence was broken with a baby-soft whimper. As plain and simple as it might seem, the child was afraid of the night.
On one particular Saturday afternoon, the master ignored the smell of rain in the air and the turned up leaves blowing in the wind and he took his dogs out late for the hunt. The farm, at once, became quiet and peaceful. The mothers could easily hear the children playing through the serenity of the master’s absence. Later, as they searched through this quiet pathway for their children, they found the sisters asleep together, for the first time, in Earthy’s bed. The girls were discovered less than thirty minutes after dark, nightshirted and scrubbed, sleeping, with arms crossed. The pillows were fluffed and the blankets were warm. There had been no crying from Polly beforehand, not even a whimper. A natural thing happened. The girls got tired and went to sleep. Polly’s mother, Becky, rejoiced! Finally, her little angel could have peace at night. And so, she sighed, could she.
Her rejoicing was short-lived, however. The master returned home early this Saturday night. Nature’s own predicted rain had drenched him and the other dumbfounded hunters in a torrent of showers before they could take shelter. As he stumbled, angry, wet, and smelling of shine, through the door of his castle the master inquired as to where Polly was. In her excitement, Mama declared that a small miracle had occurred. She explained how Polly had gone to sleep so easily over in Earthy’s bed. It was just after dark and right on time, she clarified. She hoped her husband could accept this arrangement. She was ashamed of what happened next. The master became indignant, loud, and omnipotent in a drunken, snarly way.
“I will not have my daughter sleeping with a Negra,” He shouted so the whole world could hear.
His wife was embarrassed yet, he continued, “I will not tolerate it this night or any night. She will stop crying soon enough, on her own, without sleeping with the Negras.”
He demanded his wife go immediately and retrieve her from the slave home of Carzie Sneed. She would do it or risk the threat of a thrashing from her husband. She did as she was told and went for her daughter in the middle of the rain-swept night.
Miss Mainey heard all the commotion and met Becky at the door with her child. Mainey saw more than sadness in the eyes of the master’s wife that night. Standing in the damp doorway, she saw defiance. Ten thousand words were unspoken as Becky Hawthorne covered and carried her child back across the yard to her controlled domain.
Once inside the house, Polly started her whimpering and the master acquiesced to soothe her ills. He rocked her for an hour under his smelly breath until she cried herself to sleep.
When the master stumbled through the bedroom, finally, into what was fast becoming the longest of the long nights, Becky felt as though she wanted to cry herself to sleep, too. She realized now, more than ever, that she must have a plan for her daughter’s happiness. She pretended to be asleep until she was so.
The next day was Sunday. The master wanted to leave straight away after breakfast to track down his lost dogs from the night before. Polly’s mother stood silently by the open door and handed him his hat as he passed through it. After he walked out the door, she shut it, triumphantly, behind him. From the window of the master’s home and across to Miss Mainey’s kitchen, four heads watched as he parted the gate in the fence and disappeared over the rising hill.
Soon enough, the mothers congregated by the side porch to try and recapture some of the magic from the night before.
“We’ll work something out,” Polly’s mother assured.
By this time, Polly and Earthy had joined in the circle of unrecognized power.
Polly asked, “Mama, can I sleep with Earthy?”
Mainey and Becky knew the answer to this simple question. It was yes, but. Yes, but we have to be careful. Yes, but not every night. Yes, but we can’t get caught by the master and this was the answer Polly would, ultimately, have to understand. Mainey, Earthy, and Polly listened as Miss Becky courageously outlined her plan.
“Polly,” she asked, “How about you slipping over to Earthy’s each night your father is away and every Saturday night when he hunts?”
Becky thought it would be hard to convince someone so young to compromise such personal needs, but a propitious compromise indeed, was struck. Polly knew the days of the week and she knew her father was gone on most of those nights. This, along with Earthy’s delightful acceptance of the plan, satisfied her question. The girls ran through the breezeway and into the yard almost before their mothers had time to recollect their thoughts.
“I’m sorry about last night, Miss Mainey. I’m sorry for my husband.” Becky said.
“No need to apologize for someone else’s sins, Miss Becky,” Mainey assured. “The Lord sees all things man to man and woman to woman. Sins ain’t beholding to nobody but the sinner.”
“I have an idea, Miss Mainey,” Becky spoke. “Let’s keep it to ourselves and the children. No one else needs to know. We need to do something about the other nights, Miss Mainey, the nights when the master is at home and the girls must be separated. We must address what we can do on those nights to let the girls be together. We’ll make dolls!” She announced.
“There will be two dolls. One for each child made in the likeness of the other girl. When the children must be apart and, if they are so inclined, they may trade dolls with one another. In this way, they will never really be apart.”
If it had been any other woman, Miss Mainey would have been surprised to hear a white woman talk about making a black doll for her daughter. But Rebecca Hawthorne was not your average woman. Mainey was excited about this idea and hopeful for the peace it could bring.
“So, it’s a plan,” Becky said. “I’ll see that the master has no knowledge of the doll’s true meanings. That’s part of my end of the bargain.”
It was a wonderful idea and Miss Mainey thought this could be just the thing to help ease Becky’s mind the most. It was her husband, after all, who was the tormenter. He was the unbearable task master. Yet, he was her responsibility and everybody knew it, no matter how many times we told her otherwise. If her plan could work, she would become the most heart-rested soul of all because, after all, she carried the most guilt. Lord knows he didn’t.
The dolls were made together and the material was cut in exact pairs. The outsides of the dolls were made from the soft remnants of one of Becky’s old aprons. The insides were stuffed with pieces of burlap, cotton, and straw. The strings of that original apron were also made to be just perfect for the waist bands of the dolls, tying smartly in the back like a ribbon. Blue and brown buttons were chosen for the eyes and the sparkle and spirit of a unique, hand-made love went with them. While Polly’s doll was left white, Earthy’s doll was dyed with a blue indigo and ash mixture to match her skin tone perfectly. The booties matched, the handbags and bonnets matched, and the dolls were a master stroke of genius to solve a lady’s problem. The exclusive accouterments that accompanied these creations complimented each, and the other to give them special meanings and a special relationship. They took on a life of their own and it couldn’t have worked out better.
Each doll had a mission to accomplish and this, they did. Given the dolls and more independence, the girls reached an autonomy within themselves. There, the growth came. There, the bond strengthened. Polly overcame her emotional bedtime crying, even alone in her own bed. It was tolerable for her to face the night alone and give in to it so long as she could trade to keep Earthy’s doll close for comfort and company. With Earthy’s doll, she was not alone. Earthy didn’t mind. She missed her little sister, too.
It was in the fall of their eighth and tenth years that the union between Earthy and Polly would transcend simple, physical boundaries. Incidents of that autumn and winter spread ripples and repercussions of love between them across the centuries.
One Friday evening, after a supper of cornbread, beans, and potatoes, the girls were playing out beside the chicken coop. It was a little later than usual playing time because the master was home. Soon, the two girls would be separated and confined to their own rooms for the night.
“Watch that old, sassy hen,” Polly warned Earthy. “She’s strutting like a rooster protecting her news chicks.”
Polly’s job was to gather the eggs in the morning. She knew this old hen was temperamental and would strike someone over her young. Earthy knew, too, but paid less attention to the hen when her chicks moved away and towards the door of the coop.
In a second, it happened. Earthy leaned over the fence to pick up her doll’s bonnet and the old cackler attacked. It flew up at Earthy in a fiery rage of fanatical feathers beating wildly against the wind. Talons cut through the air searching for unprotected flesh. The hen swooped in and down and on top of Earthy and its first strike carved two chunks of skin out of her left forearm. Had she not raised her arm up to protect her face it would have been much worse. Shrieks and screams filled the air. Earthy was bleeding and scared from the assault, but it wasn’t over. That crazy old hen was in another world now. She was in a world of blood and smell and sense of victory and she viciously circled Earthy preparing for another claw burst towards her eyes.
Mothers and fathers bolted from every door racing to understand the source of the child’s agony and fear, but they would not reach the chicken coop in time. They could not stop the final act of clawed vengeance from the mad hen. The hen, herself, made a terrible, bloodthirsty, and death seeking cackle as she sprang with wings spread, beak leading, and sharp claws, already dripping with blood, towards a stunned Earthy.
The little girl froze. She heard nothing now. She could only see the hen’s eyes as it moved closer to her, seeking to gouge and gash and peck her in any way that it could.
Then, in an instant, the shaft of an unanticipated hoe came slicing through the air and searching for its mark. It found it. The pre-occupied hen was rocked from its flight and fell, with a thud, at Earthy’s feet. Again with a maniacal rage, Polly struck the downed bird, beating it into the ground until it was severely injured and unable to continue its attack. It was unable to even move. It flapped and rolled around in a circle on one wing and one foot.
Earthy was still confused and overwhelmed when her mother picked her up, bleeding and dusty from the onslaught. Her arm was a bloody mess. The master was there, too, and in one redeeming act, he immediately grabbed the hen up by its neck and rung it. He slung the head to the ground as the body performed its final death dance.
Earthy and Polly were both being helped away from the carnage by their mothers and were halfway to the house when they all turned to hear the master shout, “Now who will draw blood? You’ll never again attack one of my children.” He stomped on the old hen’s head with his boot and crushed it into the ground.
“Prepare this bird for the meal tomorrow,” he said, to no one in particular, but his orders would be carried out.
Polly and her mother stayed late at Miss Mainey’s house, tending to Earthy’s wounds and acknowledging Polly’s quick thinking.
“It’s unusual for such a small girl to be so brave in the face of danger.” Miss Mainey said.
“Thank you, Polly,” Earthy added.
All the next day the girls could smell that chicken stewing. It became somewhat of a community event. Everybody wanted a piece of the chicken that had attacked the children. There was something that was good and right about eating that chicken. It was just. Polly and Earthy ate their fill of beans and potatoes but, they passed on the chicken.
After the special supper, the girls disappeared to play. They huddled together inside a tobacco barn near the south field. This is where they made their secret pact. Now and forever, they said, for all time, Earthy would give her black doll to Polly and Polly would do the same, she would give her doll to Earthy. In their treaty, they proposed that the dolls would, forever more, represent the girls. After they traded, they agreed they would never, ever be apart again because they had each, the other’s doll. They made the trade. They swore an oath. They spit on their hands and shook them like they had seen the boys do and it was so. As the girls walked back to their houses they each carried the doll whose likeness was of the other and they didn’t feel alone.
THE BLACK DOLL
The winter of Polly’s tenth year started like any other. There was grain to store and wood to cut in preparation for the months of cold weather that would come. Those winter winds brought more than just snow and ice to the farm that year. They brought the fever. Earthy remembered the hard, December day when Polly first became weak. It was another Saturday night and the master was off hunting with the dogs. Polly told her mother she was just a little tired.
“I’m going to Earthy’s, Mama,” She said.
“Your head’s a little warm, honey. Do you feel alright, my baby?” Miss Becky asked her child.
“I’m fine, Mama,” Polly assured.
“Becky, you need to come over to the house right now!” It was well into the night and Becky knew, by the way that the knocks came hard and fast on her door, that something wasn’t right. Mainey was all out of breath and she had that panic-stricken look on her face that told Becky something was wrong with her child.
“What is it, Mainey? What’s wrong?” Becky pleaded as they both ran back towards the house where Polly was sleeping.
“Your child is about to sweat to death, Becky,” Mainey panted. “Earthy woke me up a few minutes ago because Polly was so hot that she couldn’t hardly touch her.”
By the time those few words were exchanged, Becky was at the bedside of her daughter. Mr. Carzie was ringing the heat out of a previously cold wet rag and soaking it back up in a spring water and apple cider vinegar mix to return it to Polly’s forehead. He had already placed some of the cool rags around her feet.
“She’s terrible hot, Miss Becky,” Carzie lamented. “She’s got the fever.”
“Oh, my Lord,” Becky cried. “Oh Lord, no! She’s as hot as fire. We’ve got to get her back to the house, Carzie.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Carzie answered and in an instant, he picked the little girl up, blanket, wet rags, and all in his arms, and started for the Master’s home. Becky and Mainey led the way with Earthy, fearful and scared for the life of her little sister, following close behind.
Carzie gently placed Polly in her own bed and Becky immediately began reapplying the cold rags to her forehead, neck, and every part of her body that she could to continue to soak the heat out of her. From the inside out, the fever was burning the poor girl up.
“I know about where the Master is hunting, Miss Becky,” Carzie announced. I’ll go straight away to fetch him up and bring him back home.”
“Thank you, Carzie. Please, hurry,” Becky bemoaned. “And please, Carzie, after you find the Master, go into town and get the Doctor, too.”
“I will, Miss Becky. I will.”
In a frenzied moment, Carzie cast a frightened look at his wife and then, he was out the door. In another minute, he was heard riding his horse over the hill towards the woods where the Master hunted. He didn’t even take the time to saddle his old mare up. He rode her bareback and barefooted through the night guiding her by the mane.
“She’s going to be alright, Becky. We’ve just got to keep this cool water on her. You keep putting the rags on her and Earthy and I will keep drawing more water from the spring. Lord, please protect this girl,” Mainey prayed with all of her heart as they changed out bowl after bowl of hot water for cold.
“Can I put her doll next to her, Miss Becky?” Earthy asked.
“Of course, you can, my sweet little girl,” Becky answered as she tried to smile. “Here, place it in her hands.”
Earthy tried to place the black doll in her hands but, Polly did not have the strength to clutch it. Earthy rested her little hand over the top of it as best she could.
“You hold your doll, Polly. You hold it tight and I will always be with you,” Earthy sobbed. “I won’t ever leave you. I promise,” she said as she held her sister’s hand tight.
Without warning, the Master burst through the door like a charging bull and he nearly knocked over the table with the lit coal oil lamp on it. He tipped it over as he lurched to get next to his child. Miss Mainey saved the lamp from falling, breaking, and catching the floor on fire.
“Carzie has gone for the Doctor, Becky. How long has she been like this?” he inquired.
“She felt a little warm before bedtime. We’ve been soothing her with cold water and apple cider vinegar and we’ve got onions cut up in the rags around her feet.” Becky knew the Master would quickly want to know if all of the home remedies for reducing a fever were being applied.
He touched her head and groaned, “She is on fire!”
In a minute, he surveyed his daughter and, suddenly, noticed the black doll in her hand.
“Where is her white doll,” he demanded to know. “Why does she have this black doll in her hand?” He looked directly at Earthy and the little girl gasped.
“Give me Polly’s doll,” he ordered.
“No!” Becky tried to interject but, the Master hurled his insults towards her.
“I said give me that damned white doll!”
Without saying a word, Earthy gave her white doll to her mother. Mainey reached out to hand it to the Master. He jerked it out of her hand and replaced the black doll under Polly’s hand with the white doll. He cast the black doll to the floor at Earthy’s feet.
“There is no need for you all to be here. You may go back to your quarters, now. I’ll tend to my daughter until the Doctor gets here.”
Becky felt ashamed as she walked Mainey and Earthy to the door. With their arms joined together and their spirits low, they all took another long and sorrowful look at Polly. Their head’s were bowed in sadness and reflection as she quietly led them from the room.
Soon, Carzie returned with the Doctor and the physician quickly began to assess the girl. He felt her neck, he noticed she was red and flushed, he tried to keep her covered up to keep the shakes and the chills from her but this was all to no avail.
“I’ve brought an elderflower and yarrow herbal drink with me. We must try to get her to swallow a bit of it,” he insisted. “I had this made up just yesterday at the Dolin’s home across the river. Their boy had the exact same symptoms as Polly. I’m afraid this isn’t good, Miss Becky,” the Doctor diagnosed. “The fever is going around,” he added. “The Dolin boy passed away this morning. I am very sorry to have to tell you that if her fever doesn’t break by this afternoon, we could lose her.”
“Oh, Lord, no. Please Lord, no. Please, Lord, don’t take my baby.” Becky cried at the bedside of her daughter.
Mainey, Earthy, and Carzie Sneed cried from their home across the yard.
Becky cried and prayed and built courage by her daughter’s bedside all night. At daybreak, the sun happened to shine through the little girl’s window with a beam of light that shone itself directly on Polly’s little hand. It brightened itself with an angelic glow on the white doll she held.
“Oh, no. No, no, NO,” she barked at the Master and it woke him from his sleep.
Becky Hawthorne picked up the white doll held captive under Polly’s hand and said to the Master, sternly, as she waved it in his face, “This is NOT Polly’s doll!”
She took the white doll and stormed from her cabin across the yard to the home of Mainey and Carzie Sneed. After a few minutes, she returned with the black doll in her hand.
“THIS is Polly’s doll,” she declared to the Master. “THIS is the doll she will hold and you will NEVER again remove it from her hand! Do you understand me?” she boldly asserted as she gently placed the black doll back in her daughter’s hand and tightly clasped her own hands around them both.
The master looked incredulously at his wife. He was smart enough to know that she would not be trifled with at this time, on this subject. He nodded his head in agreement.
“I’m going to get Mainey and Earthy and we are going to tend to my daughter! If you don’t like that you can go back out on your damned hunt and be gone with you and good riddance. Otherwise, draw us a fresh bowl of water from the creek and stay out of our way.”
The master nodded again and went for the water.
Mainey, Earthy, and Becky did all they could for the child. They prayed a church load of prayers throughout the day as they changed out bowl after bowl of water. The master drew every one of them and mixed each with apple cider vinegar.
The Doctor would not give up hope but he had to leave in the early afternoon as another family was calling him away to deal with another fever.
“Keep praying,” he offered as his best advice before mixing up another batch of the herbal drink and moving on to the next farm.
It was late in the afternoon and a red-headed woodpecker was pecking so hard on a tree that it seemed to be right outside the window. Becky listened to the bird at work and held tight to her daughter’s hand. She said another prayer for all of God’s creatures.
The master brought a fresh bowl of cool water into the room and they all noticed that Polly didn’t seem to be sweating so much as she had through the previous night and day. Her skin wasn’t as fire hot as it was before. She was, actually, holding her little doll in her hand now and she seemed to be wrapping her fingers around it. She was moving her head around a bit and her lips welcomed the moisture of the herbal recipe.
Becky, Mainey, Carzie, and Earthy all prayed harder now than they ever did in their entire lives. The master joined in, too. Even he could see that the Spirit was moving in their little cabin. The child was coming back to life.
They filled her full of the elderflower and yarrow herbal drink left by the Doctor. He said that she was sweating everything she had inside of her out and she needed to drink in as much as she could or she could not recover. He left a gallon of it and Becky saw to it that she drank it all down to the last drop.
Later, in the evening, just before the Sneed family reconciled that little Polly was going to be alright and they were getting ready to leave, Polly felt like talking.
She spoke as they all stood around her bed.
“I was going away, Mama. I didn’t know where I was going but I knew it was far away because I had never seen this place before. I was all by myself. I kept looking for you, for Earthy, for Miss Mainey, but I couldn’t find you. I couldn’t hear you, I couldn’t see you. Sometimes I would be walking through the woods and sometimes, it seemed, I was floating in the clouds. I was getting so tired, so sleepy, and I just wanted to lie down. Then, after I seemed to be so tired, so tired that I couldn’t go on, I found my easy place to lie down in the soft green grass under a beautiful Dogwood tree. I smelled the grass and the Dogwood flowers and it was so peaceful but, beyond that, I smelled the sweet scent of Earthy’s black doll. I knew it was her doll. It smelled just like Earthy. It was so close to me, I could almost feel it. I laid there for a long time because it was so restful. It was so easy to be there, to stay there but, I knew if I wanted to find you I had to get back up and start following Earthy’s smell. It smelled so sweet, so clean, and so perfect, I couldn’t stop looking for it. I knew it was Earthy’s doll. It seemed to be right there, right in front of me, but it was taking forever to find it. Then, for the longest time, I lost it. I lost that smell and I was lost again. I just laid down that time right where I was. I was so tired out, Mama, from looking for you. I felt so much like sleeping but, it was funny. Just when I seemed to be the most tired, I heard your voice. This is Polly’s doll, you said. When you said Polly’s doll, I woke right up and I smelled it again. I immediately got up. I didn’t want to lay down anymore, I wanted to find Earthy’s doll because I knew if I could find that doll, I could find Earthy, and then I could find you. I followed that smell until I felt you holding my hand.”
The master looked at his daughter and then, his wife. He looked back at his daughter.
“By being foolish and not adhering to the simple words of God, love thy brother, I have almost killed our daughter,” he said, back to his wife.
He added, “The golden rule says that we must treat one another as we would like to be treated. Before today, I used the excuse that the negro was inferior to me. In that light, in my mind, they didn’t get the full benefit of God’s golden rule. But, I have learned that there are ways that I am inferior to the negro. We are both inferior to God but we can both be a shining tribute to Him. God has taught me a valuable lesson today. He taught me that not only must I love all of God’s children so much more than I do, He taught me that I can not survive alone. He showed me that I was losing you, my dear wife, I was losing my daughter, and I was losing myself.”
“He showed me that I was losing you,” he repeated, to his wife. “I am sorry, Becky for being such a bad man to you and for being such a rude husband and father. I can change and I will change. I promise you, I will. I will immediately begin to work more with you, Mr. Carzie, in the harvesting of our crops and the cultivating of our friendship. We will begin to speak more of your freedom and your future. I am sorry, Earthy, for treating you with disrespect. I am sorry, Miss Mainey for not appreciating you more. We will teach you, anywhere we can, and we will continue to let you teach us. I only ask that you please let me try.”
Becky Hawthorne smiled and thought to herself, today will be a good day.
The Town With Mean Eyes, Part 1
2 Thessalonians 3:13
But as for you, brothers and sisters, do not grow weary of doing good.
There was only one time in my life that I slept a more peaceful sleep than I did that night after the last meeting. I was content and smiled when I closed my eyes because I knew, just as sure as I laid my head on that feather pillow, that my family’s lives were full of a new hope and a new promise. Our lives were ours now, we believed that, and only God owned our souls. When I said my good night prayers that night it was with a new conviction. It was like we had all woke up to a brand new world. It was like we had all been reborn.
We looked at our days differently now because they were all for us. What we did, on each of those days, determined how well we made it in this county. If we didn’t do nothing we wouldn’t have nothing and this was a rough place, not to have nothing in it. We owed it to our boys and our past struggles to use our freedom to make something with our lives. Hilton and I made ourselves that promise. If the Lord was willing and there was a place where we could just have an opportunity to make it, we would take it.
I was putting on coffee that first morning of our new life and getting a breakfast ready for my men when I heard Jeremiah coming up the trail.
“Wooo. Woo, hoo. Mr. Hilton, Miss Elly. It’s me, Jeremiah. Miss Elly, sorry to come calling so early. Woo hoo, Mr. Hilton.”
The dark was still hiding in the lower parts of the tree branches and underbrush. A cool morning was just breaking on the farm. He must have woke the ferryman!
“I’m here,” Hilton answered. “By the woodpile.”
Jeremiah dipped his head down away from the house and the line he was walking and instantly looked back up towards Hilton. In one swift turn, he was quickly headed in his direction. He made a beeline straight for him. He was a bundle of excitement and it was funny, the way he walked right up to Hilton talking the whole time. It was like he was saying everything on his mind at the very same time he was thinking it. He would hold his arms out with his palms up like he was pleading one minute and then, the next minute, he would raise them up above his head like he was giving a hallelujah praise!
“Mr. Hilton, I got something I need to talk to you about,” he broke out with even before saying the first how do you do!
“I’m thinking about leaving the land between the rivers, Mr. Hilton but, before you say anything, hear me out. I’m thinking about moving to a real city, a big town, a place where everybody can have a chance. You know about that railroad they have going out of St. Louis, Mr. Hilton? Well, I aim to work at that iron mill just this side of the Mississippi River, in Illinois. It’s a big ol’ spur and there is a big demand for them rails. I ain’t afraid of hard work. If hard work is the only thing standing between me and a good living then you can count me gone. Watch out, boys! Whoo, doggie! Illinois is a free state, Mr. Hilton. Once I get through Kentucky I will be double free! A free man in a free state! Woo hoo, pappy!
I’m a free man now, Mr. Hilton. I’m a free man! I been up all night thinking about it. I feel like I been reborn again. I feel like my mama and my daddy lived and died for me to be free and now they done, somehow, seen me set free. I got to do right by them. I’m all they got left.
I know you been a free man a long time, Mr. Hilton. I know you already know what its like to be free. That’s why I come over here this morning, Mr. Hilton. To ask your advice. You see, I’m just new born free and I don’t want to mess it up. I don’t want to waste my freedom now that I just got it. I just don’t see no future for me here, Mr. Hilton. My mama is gone, my daddy is gone, and there is nothing holding me here. Besides, this land can be a hard and scary place if you are on your own. Not out here, not between the rivers. But what if I don’t want to always be a farmer? What if I just want to go into Town sometime? This County ain’t gonna change for a long time, Mr. Hilton.
Am I wrong, Mr. Hilton? Will I be messing up if I take my freedom papers and go to Illinois? They a free state! What does that mean, a free state?
How am I supposed to use this new freedom, Mr. Hilton?”
Jeremiah finally stopped talking. He was all talked out. He said everything that he had on his mind all night. No doubt he had not eaten. His eyes were full of stars and hope. I took coffee to the men as the biscuits baked.
Hilton looked like he tried to jump in and answer Jeremiah a couple of times, but Jeremiah kept firing his questions, one right after the other and didn’t give him the chance. Hilton just cocked back up on a stump smiling as he listened to his friend.
“You’re supposed to do just what you are doing right now, Jeremiah.” Hilton finally counseled. “You are supposed to ask questions. Will this be right for me? What are the consequences of my actions? First, you must convince yourself that you are free. Then you must ask yourself, how free can I be? How free do I want to be? It sounds like you want complete freedom. You won’t be happy with the kind of freedom they only ration out on Sundays. I don’t like that kind of freedom, either.”
Hilton had my attention now.
“I will say three things to you, Jeremiah, to answer your questions. First, never be afraid to try something new. You can always go back to where you were. Second, never knowingly move to a worse place or position than the one you presently occupy. Third, if I can talk Miss Elly into it, we’ll go with you!”
I nearly dropped my coffee.
St. Lou, I repeated, when I came back to myself. The Lou lingered on my lips and the ooooh turned to aaah as I took a deep breath. It might as well have been Paris, France. It seemed so far away. Could the drawings in those river boat books be true? Could these wonderful places, these cities, exist? Were they there for us, too? What kind of amazing things would they have? Was it safe? Was it real? My head was so full of questions and excitement that I, suddenly, knew just how Jeremiah felt.
“Go with me, Mr. Hilton?” Jeremiah was surprised to hear that. “Really, Mr. Hilton?”
From way before he ever began planning to come out to the Great Western to work, Jeremiah always kept a strong desire inside himself to make a successful living. He was independent out of nature and he survived well his lot in life. He wanted to come over and make his mark at the Great Western. He was primed for it but she was gone now and nobody knew for how long. She was gone, but Jeremiah still had that fire inside him. He still had that drive for success. He knew in just under three days of travel that he could be through the backwoods of Kentucky, across the Ohio river, and up into Illinois. He knew he could catch a train from there that would take him to his iron and steel heaven.
“Those men are building that railroad spur going in twelve different directions,” he repeated to Hilton. “With your knowledge of iron and your organization of furnaces, with your contacts, we could easily land a job forming those rails. There is a future there, Mr. Hilton. Samuel and Hilmon can grow up free and educated sitting right alongside other free and educated children just like them. They would all be thinking free minded things and coming up with free minded answers at the same time. All of your friends would be free. There would be no more whipping and no more running from the dogs. Think of it, Mr. Hilton.”
“I have,” Hilton replied. “What do you think about St. Louis, Miss Elly?” Hilton asked me.
“It sounds exciting,” I answered. I was telling the truth.
Of course, I wanted to go to St. Louis! It was that magical place where we had been sending people to find their freedom. It was a place worth risking your life to see. It was another dream we were chasing and we seemed to be catching our dreams now. This was a dream that would be worth catching.
I was tired of the fight. Jeremiah was right. We could never win the fight here. Not in this county. The cards were stacked against us. Too much bias existed among the people and those in power chose to let it be that way. It was divisive, unfair, and non-productive but, that was how they wanted it. The powers that be needed the separation. They needed it to remind themselves that they were the superior ide. They didn’t care if some of the uppity folks left. They didn’t care if they had white trash or black trash on their hands.
Unfortunately, for the sake of the fair-minded, most of the time the bad people in Town outnumbered the good people in Town. You were on your own in a fix because the few good people in Town always had something to lose by standing up for what was fair. Everybody tended to keep their necks tucked in.
In some sense, it really didn’t seem like we were free. We were paper free, officially, but still treated as lower class. Here, we would always be talked down to. This was one of those places with that “Sunday morning” kind of freedom Hilton was talking about. I loved the country but, there was opportunity in the city. There was opportunity and real freedom.
Because of this and because of my children, I wanted to leave. Hilton spoke to Jeremiah.
“Jeremiah, we need to go, too. We need to go somewhere. I won’t raise my children to live with the madness and the evil that still lives here. We could go back to farming and make a decent living, as long as the weather cooperated. We could be free dirt farmers all day long and I might even set out a few grapevines. We could do all that. But I won’t. I want more than that for my children.
I won’t just up and move my family, either, Jeremiah. Not without a little bit of knowledge about where we are going. I propose you go ahead to St. Louis. You scout it out and I will give you the names of some of my contacts. You tell them what our plans are and see if they have a place for us. If there are jobs, find a safe place for us to live. If it is all so, Elly and I and the boys will join you. Maybe, as soon as the spring.
If money flows by red-hot iron in St. Louis then we will be a part of it. I see no reason to waste our talents here. For now, Elly and I will board up our farm at Cedar Pond and move back across the River to Saline Creek. We will squat over there and prepare for the journey to St. Louis. I believe you will find the industry you speak of, Jeremiah. I believe there is a place for us there. You go before us and we will follow in the spring. When will you leave and how are you set for money?”
“I will travel light and require little preparation. I leave Monday morning. I would leave tomorrow, but I have something to do. There is also something I would ask that you tend to until my return.
I have 75 dollars saved for the journey. It will be more than enough to get me there. I had 90 dollars saved. That was the twenty dollars I got for working each of the four years on the farm and the 10 dollar gold piece the Elams gave me. The only thing I spent money on was the 15 dollars for Mama’s funeral so I could bury her, proper. The burial was only 12 dollars, but I paid more to honor Mama’s last wishes. She said she hoped someday I could put a marker over her that read, “Daughter, Loving Mother, and Faithful Wife. My Darling Buck, until we meet again.”
Mama cried when she asked me if I could put a cross of white blossoms on her casket. She wanted the world to know, as they laid her down to rest, that she was a married woman. She was afraid to ask me. She was afraid for me worrying about it if I didn’t have the money. She just wanted a simple one, really, but I couldn’t leave it at that. I did make her one by my own hands and I put that one in her hands to carry with her. That way, my daddy can see it when they meet again, over Jordan. She was Mrs. Buck Porter and she wanted the world to know it. I paid the undertaker’s wife extra to make the one she had on her casket.
Just keep my Mama’s grave clear, please, until I return. If my daddy ever finds his way back here I want him to know that we all loved him.” Jeremiah had a tear fall down his cheek, but he quickly wiped it away.
The cross of white blossoms on Mrs. Buck Porter’s coffin was the biggest one anybody had ever seen. Everybody talked about how pretty it was and about how it was the mark of a married woman. His mama would have been proud.
“Jeremiah, I need you to have a fighting chance in St. Louis. 75 dollars will get you there but you need to survive and you need a way back if things don’t work out. Elly and I will give you another 75 dollars to help you out. Use the name of this contact first, he is a personal friend of Mr. Newell. If all works out you won’t need another.” Hilton wrote a name on a piece of paper and Jeremiah folded it up and put it with his money.
“I’ll send a letter back as soon as I get settled,” Jeremiah promised as he went back into his excited stage.
“Free, free, free! Oh, Lordy, me! What am I going to do, a free man up in old St. Lou!” Jeremiah was singing and bobbing his head around. Hilton was clapping his hands and slapping them on his thigh. Samuel was up by now with all of the bustling about and he was half stepping too, a little, in his sleep. A fishing pole was dragging behind him and dangling in his little hand. Everybody was laughing and happy and Hilton just swayed me around like we were dancing, too, but we wasn’t really dancing. We was just holding one another and it felt good, my man holding me like that.
I’ll never get over Jeremiah’s smile. He had been through so much in his short life but tomorrow was his new day to live and we all knew it.
“Right now, Mr. Jeremiah,” Hilton said, seriously, “You can help me stock that porch up with this wood. Winter is moving in fast. I can feel it in the air this morning. It will be a long time before we see another sunny day like yesterday.”
There was no time for crying now. That time had passed. It was only a time for rejoicing.
It was a good plan. Hilton felt like something was calling him away. He felt like we needed to leave this place and he wanted to be near that fire again. He loved the fire. He said when that iron was flowing red hot it was like holding a river of fire in your hands. Hilton Jacobs held a river of fire in his hands every day at the Great Western. Dover, even the land between the rivers, couldn’t hold him now.
Jeremiah ate four of my big ol’ cat head biscuits with red-eye gravy and two slices of ham, with eggs, before he left. I knew that boy had to be hungry. After being up all night, he was worn out by the time he went back across the river. He said he was going to clear his mama’s grave and then go home and rest up for the journey. He said he would pass back through on Monday morning. We knew it would be early. We would be ready for him.
Samuel and Hilton fished on the decision all day after Jeremiah left. My boys brought back a fine mess of fish to cook up. Hilton knew just the right time to be getting back home. He always made sure he made it with enough sunlight left to get the cooking done before it got dark. My job was to get that fire stirred up and my man could be counted on to be along just about the time it got to jumping.
Now, right on time, here they come and with a fat slab of creek steaks all filleted out and ready for the pan.
When everybody had a belly full and it got quiet, me and Hilton talked about St. Lou. We could send the boys to fine schools there, Hilton said. Life was easier in the big towns, he said. If you had enough money you didn’t have to do hardly anything. All the food you could ever eat was right there. Money was all it took. Hilton planned on having a lot of that. He said he would be very surprised if his contacts with Mr. Newell didn’t pan out. He said he thought we would be in St. Lou by the summer. Oh, Lordy me, I thought to myself.
After I accepted the fact that we would be leaving here for good, there were certain things about living between the rivers I would truly miss. I would miss the hummingbirds and the woodpeckers. I would miss the Cardinals and the Blue Jays. I knew there would be no eagles, no hawks and no owls in the city so I would miss them, too. I would miss the bull frogs and the lightning bugs. They were all around us. We lived with them. The yellow and black butterflies and bumble bees would flutter, fly, and buzz around us no more. The creek steaks would all be safe now from the sharp throw of Samuel’s well-trained lure. I sure would miss them. These animals knew nothing of the hurtful ways of man. They would live on in relative peace here yet, we would leave. I was ready to move on.
I really didn’t care what Hilton was saying. I was listening to him but all I knew was that as he was talking, his soft and strong fingers were rubbing the side of my head and my neck and my shoulders and it all felt so good. I hung my head and he rubbed my skull to the bone with an easy touch that soothed me. I closed my eyes and rolled my head back and let my shoulders fall so that my hands were limp, by my side. He rubbed the tightness right out of my arms and I felt the sweet touch of his lips on the back of my neck and my ears. Hilton said St. Louis and I said yes. He whispered soon and I said yes. He said when love is love, baby and I said yes, please baby, yes.
I slept the most peaceful sleep of my life that Saturday night. I believe Hilton did, too.
The boys didn’t fish on Sunday. We rested. Hilton read from the Bible and we sang hymns in the cool morning air. We thought about Jeremiah and about how he must be ready to bust with excitement.
Hilton had been up about fifteen minutes on Monday morning and had just enough time to get the coffee ready when we heard that woo hoo coming back down the trail. Jeremiah had woke the ferryman again! He said the happy boat tender would take no money from him for this trip across the river. He knew of Jeremiah’s travel to St. Louis and he wanted to send him away with good wishes. Jeremiah took this as a good sign. The ferryman was a friend, no matter how many times he woke him up early!
We said our goodbyes, for now, and we all believed we held the bright promise of a free tomorrow in our sights. I’ll see you again in the spring, Jeremiah said, as he backed away toward the North West trail. Even though he was a free man, he still had to get through Kentucky. Mose would go with him all the way to the Ohio River and see that Jeremiah’s boat returned from Illinois without him. We would then know, for sure, that Jeremiah was double free.
After Jeremiah and Mose passed through the trail we drank our morning coffee and imagined all the things we would see by this time, next year. Samuel woke up early and, imagine that, he wanted to go fishing!
“We’ve got to go to the “Blue Hole” today Mama! That’s a whole different kind of fishing.”
“Why is it different, Samuel?” I asked.
“They got BIG fish in the Blue Hole, Mama.” He held his hands as far apart as he could in describing those striped monsters.
“Samuel,” Hilton asked. Did you dig us up some big fishing worms last night?”
“I did, Daddy! I got us some good fishing worms. I even got us some half worms!”
Hilton smiled and laughed. “Some half worms? Did you get us any quarter sized worms, son?”
Samuel thought for a moment and answered, “No, but I can make you some.”
“That’s alright, son. We’ll make due.” Hilton looked at me when he spoke to Samuel. “You sure are one smart feller.”
“Mama says it’s because I take after her,” Samuel repeated what his Mama had said, many times.
Hilton looked back at me and smiled, “Your Mama is right and don’t you forget it.”
“I won’t, Daddy.”
I looked at Hilton. “You know why I tell him that, don’t you?” I asked. “Because I want him to grow up just like you. If I tell him he is just like me he will do everything in his power to be just like you. I believe he will have the best of both of us.”
Hilton smiled and nodded, yes. “Let’s go fishing, son.”
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
“Jesus Christ, Opson!” Howard Claiborne screamed as he heard the news.
“Another five slaves escaped over the Sabbath? Where in the hell did they escape from? No doubt they were collected near the hollows of the Great Western and that bastard Luke Elam’s property.”
“No sir, Mr. Claiborne. These slaves were owned by the Bellwood Furnace and the Bear Spring Furnace. Three were from Bellwood and two from Bear Springs. They were caught by the dogs running in the woods off the trail toward Hopkinsville. They were on the other side of the river.”
“All slaves, Opson?” Claiborne inquired. Judge Virgil Kaney sat in the room with Howard Claiborne and Thomas Opson but did not speak.
“No sir, Howard,” Opson answered in a more cordial tone. The Bellwood slave had his family with him. Two slaves were from the Bear Spring Furnace.”
“Castrate the slave with a family, Opson and lock the two runaway slaves in the jail. We are putting a stop to all of this right now.” Claiborne knew he was the Judge, the Jury, and the Executioner. He was the god of his world. Who could stop him? Who could even stand up to him? His word was the law.
“The married slave is already dead, Howard.” Opson appeased. “The fool was shot trying to take up for his wife. The other two slaves are still alive. They’re half dead, but I’ll throw them in the jail if that’s what you want.”
“Opson, sit your arse down, boy, and listen to what I am telling you.”
Howard Claiborne was calling the shots. He cared nothing of anything that did not add to his wealth and power. More than that, he despised and loathed anything that threatened his throne. He would stamp it out. He had the power to do so. He owned it. Lives in the way did not matter. Human lives were counted in numbers to Howard Claiborne, not in feelings. Families were beneath him. Unity meant absolutely nothing to him. And this was how he treated the white families, the sharecroppers, beneath him.
Howard Claiborne was brought here, as a young child, by a military man on a land grant. That military man wasn’t his real father and word was that he worked the boy and his mother long and hard for a lot of years with little reward. It was told he treated them both real bad. Claiborne’s mother ended up dying too young. Most people said she worked herself to death. It wasn’t long after she passed that the military man just up and disappeared. Howard said he went hunting one day and never came back. That left the young Claiborne, at 17, to make it on his own. He never knew who his real daddy was and his mama was beaten down. That put a chip on his shoulder that he never got over. It turned him real mean.
Of course, this all happened long before the slave arrived. Howard Claiborne had dealt with “white trash” long before the negro landed in Stewart County. When Claiborne and all of his “progressive” Furnace owning friends found the slave they degenerated to a whole new level of superiority. They treated the negro as chattel, as real property. It disgusted them to believe that the negro could have the austere comeuppance to believe they could ever be free. And it wasn’t just poor white folk or black folk that Howard Claiborne treated badly. He made a habit of spitting on any Chinese man that walked by. He liked to make a spectacle of them to his friends and acquaintances. What could they do?
Many of those good people left this Town.
Howard Claiborne was an evil man. The sad thing? He was just one, of many. All of these Furnace owners arrived in Town and came into their own by various means. Whether it be inherited money, stolen money, or even hard earned money, it was all there. Murdered for money? Of course. It was there, too. This place didn’t get its rough name for nothing. And as for the money? The mean ones had the most of it. It was just the way of life.
Claiborne had lived long enough to see all of his partners, one by one, die. Cross Elam was the last to go. After Cross died Howard Claiborne saw himself as the last man standing. He believed it was left up to him to stop this creeping destruction of their empire. He must stop this escaping, this uprising. It was a rebellion against their old way of life. He would stop it, by God, he would.
“Boy,” he glared at Opson. “You’re going to earn your money tonight or I’ll have a new Constable by morning. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Sir!” Opson sat up straight and listened with his eyes intent on what his owner was saying. He answered, smartly. The Major, himself, would have been proud of the military bearing his son displayed in answering so obediently. Opson was eager for his orders.
“I’m bringing in extra riders from Dickson and Ashland City, Opson. We’re going to take a team of men and go into every slave camp in this County. Go to every Furnace, Opson, and to every slave encampment. Burn down any church or worship area you may see. Bring me back the leader of each camp. We will stop this rebellion. We will stop this uprising now! Tomorrow is Wednesday, December 3rd. I want this over this week, Opson. Have all of the leaders of this uprising in my jail by Thursday morning. Do you understand me, Opson?”
“Charge the camps with the extra horses,” Claiborne demanded. “The rebellion ends here. The next thing you know, slaves will be killing white people to escape. I am paying these extra men and horses for a reason, Opson. Charge the camps. Run over, with your horses, anyone that gets in your way. If they attempt to obstruct you, kill them on the spot! Do you hear me, boy?”
“What did I say?”
“Kill them on the spot,” Opson repeated.
“Go to every camp. Run over anybody that gets in your way and burn something down, dammit! Bring me back the leaders. They will be the ones speaking out the most. Now, what part of any of that don’t you understand, boy?”
“I understand it all, Mr. Claiborne,” Opson assured.
“Meet the riders from out of town at the jail tomorrow morning and get to work, then.” Claiborne spit his sacred tobacco juice into the fire and wiped residue of it from the dried spot on his chin.
“And Opson, you take ten of those riders and go to the Great Western. I want Luke Elam and Hilton Jacobs in that jail tomorrow. Do you understand?”
“But the Great Western is shut down, Howard. They don’t even have a slave encampment.” Opson barely got his words out.
Howard Claiborne swung around and backhanded Thomas Opson right across his face and it knocked him out of his chair and onto the floor. Opson saw stars and didn’t jump right up and it was a good thing. Claiborne’s bodyguards were ready to finish what he started, but he waved them off.
Opson looked up at Howard Claiborne standing above him. “I said Elam and Jacobs, boy. You bring me Elam and Jacobs. Do you understand that?”
“Yes, Sir,” Opson answered.
“Catch them away from their homes. That way we can accuse them of anything. Now, if you want to keep that farm get the hell out of here and do your job.”
Opson disappeared into the night with his Deputies. There was no doubt that on the very next day, with reinforcements, their marching orders would be strictly carried out.
“You’re going to work Thursday too, Virgil. Get your robe ready.” Claiborne barked.
“What are we going to do with Luke Elam, Howard? You can’t just whip him like a negro.”
Virgil Kaney wasn’t completely without reason. While he was morally bankrupt, he wasn’t as insulated from the people as Howard Claiborne was. He didn’t have bodyguards or Committee of Safety members protecting his movements everywhere he went. He had to see Luke Elam in Town. He had to face his family on the square. He had to live with his decisions. He tried to do right in every other decision in the County that he could. That way, he rationalized, people would forgive him for always ruling in Howard Claiborne’s favor. He bent the rules a little and the money wasn’t bad.
“I’ll have him whipped harder than any negro you’ve ever seen! What the hell do you mean I can’t whip him?” Howard Claiborne snarled his lips and gritted his teeth. His snake eyes grew tight as they honed in on Virgil Kaney.
“Luke Elam is the worst of all white men. He is a white man with a conscience, a sense of righteousness. He is always talking about some kind of soulful truth that is supposed to, somehow, miraculously, set them all free. Ha! That’s a load of horse shat. Work hard and save your money, they say. Live by the straight and narrow, they preach. A wagon load of Christians never owned anything but a wagon load of faith and faith won’t pay the bills, Kaney. I didn’t get to this position by having a conscious, boy. Men like Luke Elam are a threat. Luke Elam costs me money. He takes money out of my pocket and he gives it to those lowly workers as if they meant something like their lives mean something. They don’t mean anything. Not in this Town. Not if I have anything to do with it. Luke Elam will be in your Court Thursday and you will sentence him to 100 lashes of the whip at the stocks in Town.”
Virgil Kaney jumped from his chair. “I won’t do it, Howard. That’s a death sentence! You know the negro boy died at 75 lashes. 100 lashes will kill him! I have to live in this Town, Howard. Give him 50 lashes, give him a year in the County jail, take his sacred tobacco but, for Christ’s sake Howard, we can’t kill him. It will never be forgotten.”
Virgil Kaney was pleading for his life and his peace, too. He only wanted to sell his neighbors out a little bit at a time. He didn’t want to kill them. It was well known that Virgil Kaney was in Howard Claiborne’s watch pocket, but that had worked well for him up until now. Up until now Virgil Kaney was, pretty much, well liked out in the County.
“100 lashes, boy. You’ll give him that Thursday or there will be a new Judge in Town by Friday. You will then load up your obnoxious wife and your pretty little girlfriend and be gone or you will be in eternity by Saturday. Do you completely understand me, boy?”
Virgil Kaney’s left eye twitched under the pressure but only for a second, or two.
“I understand,” he said. “100 lashes. I’ll have to add 1 year in the County jail so I can say I didn’t know the whipping would kill him.”
Howard Claiborne laughed.
And He said, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.”
On December 3rd, 1856 I woke up earlier than usual. I could feel the cold of winter biting in the air. Hilton rousted himself out even before me. The first thing he did was poke and stoke up that fire and I was glad because it chased the nip right out of the air. I loved to pull the quilts up to my chin and stare at the sparklers and the sparkles of my man’s fire. Anywhere he made it, his fire was good. I could feel the heat and the warmth of it on my face. I felt safe so I closed my eyes for a few more minutes. When I woke back up Hilton was already outside. He was gathering up things down by one of the out buildings and putting them on a wagon.
I looked in on Samuel and little Hilmon before I mashed up a nice, warm sweet potato pudding for breakfast. I took Hilton some of it out by the wagon. He nearly had it loaded. We sat there like two children, without a care in the world, happily eating our warm milk and butter, sweet potato pudding and I asked him if we were taking all of this with us to St. Lou. I asked him about his plans for the day.
“We’ve got to do something with it,” he said. “Some of it will go with us. Most of it, we will give away once we get back across the river. If things work out, it will be a long time before we ever come back here. Our boys will be grown men, Lord Willing, and they may not want to come with us if we did. Although, Samuel could talk me into returning if he brings up all of the good fishing holes around here. I’m sure he’ll remember them.
Samuel and I will be leaving out earlier than usual this morning. We will fish one more day and then we will give you a break on fish, Mama. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve talked Samuel into a quail hunt for tomorrow.
Today, we are going across the river towards Saline Creek to meet up with Luke. I will share with him our plans to move back across the river and stay closer to the Creek through the winter. I will ask him to go with us to St. Louis and I will bribe him with some of your sweet potato pudding. If he likes it as much as your blackberry pie he might just ride in the wagon with us to St. Lou.”
“Oh, my goodness!” I wallowed. “I sure hope he doesn’t come.” I was putting on some airs. The both of you in old St. Lou? And a steel town, at that! Before it’s over you two will own that town. I just don’t know if I could stand it,” I sadly lamented as I put my forearm to my forehead. “It all sounds so highfalutin to me. The stress of it all, the fancy parties with the Governor!” I blew out a long, “Whew!”
Hilton grinned and asked me if I had everything I needed. He put his arms around me and asked me, again, “Are you sure, baby?”
I could feel all of my man next to me.
I wish I would have never let him go. I was supposed to make him stay close to the house.
“When Samuel finishes his pudding, we’ll head out.” It woke me from a daydream when I heard him say that. I was awestruck and I smiled. I just smiled and I let him go.
“We might be a little later than usual getting back, but not by much,” he finished.
“I’m ready, daddy!” Samuel shouted as he ran out the door. He was still wiping sweet potato pudding from his chin. “Where are we going today, daddy?”
“We’re going across the river to the Cave Spring fishing hole. The one by Kingin’s Hollow.”
“The supper hole, daddy?” Samuel’s eyes lit up when Hilton nodded yes.
“Mama, we are going to the supper hole today,” he said, excitedly. “You go there, you catch supper every time. It’s guaranteed!”
“Guaranteed,” Hilton repeated, as they walked away.
My men had been gone about an hour when I heard the horses coming. It was a big pack of them filling up the trail. They never did come on the farm. Instead, they kept going north, towards Kentucky. They had about enough time to get to the state line and back when I heard them again. They all rode back down towards the Great Western. This wasn’t normal and I knew something wasn’t right. We might, every now and then, see two or three riders policing the trail up to Kentucky, but there were at least a dozen, or more, of them now and they weren’t stopping for nothing. I was nervous for my boys and I wanted them to be home. I started the fire early.
It was just the normal time for them to be getting in when I heard the first news come back up through the trail. A former worker from the Great Western rode his horse fast up to the farm to tell Hilton what was happening. He told me, instead. The unknown riders had come out hard and heavy this morning, he explained. He said they went to every Furnace. There were so many of them, fifteen and twenty riders at a time swarming into every camp, setting fire to the altar churches, some homes, and even stomping on people with their horses. At Bellwood, he said, some twenty horses charged, shoulder to shoulder, up through a narrow trail that was rounded on it’s sides like a bowl. The people were all caught by surprise and were trying to run away but had nowhere to escape. It was like they were herding cattle up a chute. It all happened so fast, out of nowhere, and they couldn’t get away. Those newly deputized Committee of Safety Riders, led by some dark man, ran right over Hezekiah Tanner and the little grand baby he was trying to protect. Hez pitched the grand baby up the bank to safety just as that first horse trampled his legs and his hips. He would have been crippled for life if he had lived but, I swear, the witness said, that next rider aimed his horse’s iron shoes right for Hezekiah’s head. He found it, too, and Hezekiah was gone. Whenever they burned an altar, anybody who complained or even said anything was chained up and taken to the Dover Jail. They had six or seven slaves already locked up in there.
“Please come home, Hilton.” I whispered to myself and said a prayer to the Almighty.
Luke Elam met Hilton Jacobs by the Cave Spring pond and they let Samuel pick the spot to fish from. A cold spring flowed out of a deep and secluded cave and the pond it fed was already jumping with fish. They bit and nibbled on the poor and unfortunate bugs caught skimming along their surface. Luke was happy to see Hilton and he was happy to hear the news about us moving back across the river. He would open up the old Fitzhugh farm right next door to his property and Hilton and the boys and I would stay there, he insisted. The offer to go to St. Louis was very intriguing, Luke agreed. He said he would probably build another Furnace on Saline Creek, but all offers were on the table. He said he wasn’t looking forward to putting out a sacred tobacco crop this year without Jeremiah but, enough men had come back across the river from the Great Western to help and he could probably make it through one tough season. He laughed and added to Hilton, that was only if he didn’t take everybody with him to St. Lou.
“That Indian Cave is right there, Hilton.” Luke pointed to thick brush laying heavy on the side of a hill.
“I can’t even see the entrance, Luke. It’s covered up too good.” Hilton responded.
“I’ve been all through it and out all three exits and sometimes I still have a hard time finding it.”
“Daddy, look at this spot over here,” Samuel called.
“That is a fine place, Samuel,” Hilton and Luke agreed. The men followed the young man down the bank to the pond.
They had barely reached the water’s edge when Samuel let out loud, at once and without warning, a scared and frightened scream. Hilton and Luke jumped up in horror at what might be wrong as they heard the boy’s cry. It was a little boy’s anguished, high pitched tone and it had Hilton in an instant by his son’s side searching for the cause.
There, right before them, a man lay passed out on the ground. He was half in and half out of the pond and lay draped over an exposed tree root looking like he should be dead. He had only the shred of a shirt left on his body. His mostly bare back showed a mass of scars from the whip. His pants were barely hanging on his legs. They had been cut to pieces, no doubt, through countless miles of running and swimming to find his freedom.
“Samuel, stand over here,” Hilton said as he sized up the stranded man.
“We need to leave him alone,” Luke warned and he looked up and around for any sign of anyone else in the area. “Let’s get him up out of the water and see if he is alive but we need to get him out of sight before anyone sees us. He is clearly a runaway.”
The man was exhausted and cold and could barely crawl up out of the water. He explained he had been propped up on that tree sleeping since before nightfall. It was his first sleep in three days, he said.
“You are lucky,” Hilton said. “If those Committee riders had happened by here you would be easy pickings for them. They would have you in chains in a minute and taken back to where you came from. Where did you come from?” He asked the man.
“I’m running from a place named Tompkinsville, Kentucky,” the man explained.
“Well, you’re going the wrong way, fellow, if you are trying to escape. You are heading South and you are in Tennessee.” Luke revealed.
The men sat him up and dried him and gave him some sweet potato pudding to eat. It was all they had. They gave him another shirt to put on but could not replace his pants. As he gained his strength he began to talk.
“I’m not going north,” the man said. “I’m looking for a Town named Dover, Tennessee.” He splashed some water on his face and it cleared the mud away. “My name is Buck Porter and I’m looking for my wife and son, Jeremiah.”
As the mud was washed the man’s face became clearer.
“My Lord.” Luke mouthed the words, but they were barely audible.
Hilton just sat there, staring at him.
“What did you say, sir?” He had to make sure he heard that right.
“My name is Buck Porter,” the man repeated. “Four years ago a man named Cross Elam bought my wife and son off the blocks in that Dover town. He sent me north because I tried to protect them from his abuse. I didn’t like the way that old man looked at my family. I thought he was evil. I could tell he was a mean man. I didn’t want him to buy my family. I never dreamed he would split us up. It took me a year to figure out where I was up in Tompkinsville. It took another year to figure out where Dover, Tennessee was. This is my second escape. This is the second time I’ve tried to find Dover. They caught me once and swore if I ever ran again they would cut off my foot. They whipped me pretty hard for that. If I wasn’t such a hard worker that could go all day they would have killed me straight off. Am I close to Dover?”
“Daddy, he looks just like an old Jeremiah,” Samuel likened.
“Jeremiah looks just like a young Mr. Buck,” Hilton corrected his son.
“Buck Porter, welcome home,” Hilton said as he introduced himself.
“Mr. Porter, I want to tell you, your son is a free man. Jeremiah is a very smart and hard working young man and just this week he set out for St. Louis to work the steel mills to fashion those iron rails. We plan to join him in the spring. You must come home with us.”
“But what of my wife, Mr. Jacobs? Is my wife well?”
Samuel, Hilton, and Luke all looked, sadly, at the ground and Buck Porter knew the news wasn’t going to be good about his wife.
“She passed, Buck. I’m so sorry. She got the fever and died this past summer. I’ll take you to where she is buried. It’s in a pretty spot. Jeremiah stood strong for her, Buck, and helped her all through her sickness. You would have been real proud of your son, Buck.” Hilton tried to break the news easy, but there was no easy way to do it.
Buck Porter laid his head back on the ground and sobbed. He had no strength. His tears filled his eyes and four years of pain flowed down his face. He bowed his head and closed his eyes. He said a prayer for his beloved wife. He wished in his prayer for just one last time to tell her how much he loved her. He swore that he would have given his life for her. He apologized for making that man mad. He wanted to tell her he was sorry.
“Let’s go home, Buck. Hilton lifted his new friend off the ground. “We’ll tell you all about your fine son and what he has planned.”
Horses! Horses, all around the rim of the hollow.
“Stay right where you are, Luke Elam. You, too, Jacobs. Don’t either one of you make a move!” It was Thomas Opson come riding back on his stolen black stallion of death and he was yelling down into the hollow at the men.
The horses were on top of them so fast. No one saw where they came from and no one heard a sound, but they were all, with their hired riders, winding down through the hollow. They were closing in on them from every trail. They would be surrounded within seconds.
“Buck!” Luke screamed. “Take Samuel and get inside that cave before they see you. Go, now!”
Without thinking, Buck Porter grabbed up Samuel Jacobs and ran with him, in his arms, to behind the thick branches of foliage that hid the cave’s entrance from view. Luke directed them to the entrance. Although it was only ten paces from them, they both disappeared quickly into the cave just before the Committee riders got to the men.
“Where is that other man, Elam?” Opson demanded. “Where is that slave you were helping. I saw his ragged pants. He is a runaway. Where is he, Jacobs?”
“There was no one else, Opson. Just, us.” Luke Elam said.
“Liar!” Straddling high on his mean mount, Thomas Opson took the butt of his rifle stock and slammed it hard against the side of Luke Elam’s head. The elder Elam fell straight to the ground.
“Sit down, boy. Or I’ll kill you where you stand,” Opson ordered Hilton Jacobs as he was moving to help his fallen partner.
Buck Porter and Samuel Jacobs didn’t make a sound. The riders didn’t know of the cave and had no idea they were hiding only feet away from them. They looked everywhere for the man Opson said he saw, but he was nowhere to be found. No matter. Thomas Opson cared not to waste time quarrelling over a runaway. He had apprehended the men he was instructed to collect. He could go back to Dover now.
Opson directed the riders to tie the unconscious Luke Elam across a mule to be transported to the jail. Hilton Jacobs was handcuffed and put on the same mule. Opson and his riders led them both up the hollow and back across the river to Dover.
Samuel and Buck stayed in the cave until nightfall. The riders were long gone before Buck Porter would risk leaving the safety of the cave. Samuel told him he could get them home, even under the light of the moon. He said they would have to get to the ferry, but he could get them there, he was positive. After it got dark, Buck and Samuel listened. They listened for the sounds of a quiet night and anything different, anything unusual, even a slight crack or snap out of place in the woods, kept them longer in the darkness of the cave.
Finally, they made their way out into the night and towards the ferry. Buck was a little scared, but Samuel knew the ferryman, he assured. When they got there the ferryman knew of everything going on. He had crossed the river twice as many times as normal that day carrying all those damned riders back and forth, to and fro, and from one side of the river to the other. They never paid him. He ferried Luke and Hilton across as captives, earlier. The ferryman knew Hilton Jacobs was in the Dover Jail with Luke Elam. He was worried for Samuel when he didn’t see him with the Riders. He recognized, immediately, the little boy and he knew they needed help.
“Get over here, quickly,” He told Samuel and Buck as he hid them under canvas tarps covering some barrels on his ferry. He made the trip across the river as fast as he could, whispering to Buck and Samuel all the way.
“Be careful,” he said. “The riders are still out. They are mostly all drunk with whiskey now, but you must still be aware. Samuel knows the way home, but I will also tell you, it is about six miles from the bank of the river. Get off the trail if you hear anything. May God be with you, my friends.”
“Thank you,” an unbelieving Buck Porter said.
It was past midnight when Buck got Samuel home.
I started my cooking fire early that day. I kept it going a long time. It had been out for hours when I saw those two figures come walking back up the trail. I had been sitting on the porch rocking and rocking, just waiting for them, praying. I knew Samuel when I saw him. I could tell by the silhouette in the darkness that it was my little boy. I ran to them both like it was Hilton, too but, when I got to them I didn’t know who that man was bringing my boy home. Samuel was trying to explain, but it was all coming out of him at once. I was holding him and hugging and kissing him and trying to hear where my man was.
“I’m Buck Porter, ma’am. I came back here looking for my family and your husband found me this morning. Some Deputies came up on us and knocked out the white man that was with your husband. They knocked him unconscious and took them both to the Dover Jail, I heard them say. I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Buck Porter, for seeing my boy home. Let’s get inside and quiet. Tomorrow, we’ll go to Dover to see about Hilton and Luke.”
This chapter will come in installments (sorry). It was either that or make those interested in reading more, wait. I will work hard, I promise to get the next installment of this chapter out. Installments of this chapter? Maybe, 2 more. Because of this episodic release, I will not put it out on Facebook until the chapter is complete. This is our secret. Thanks!
From me, Robin. To you, my friends.
Did you ever read a book from it’s end and then finish it at the beginning?
No, you haven’t. Don’t do that here, either.
If you want to find out how we all got here I would advise you to scroll down (way down) to Chapter 1 and I do thank you for that.
I especially give thanks if you know me and you understand that we have all grown up here together, between and across the rivers, sharing 200 years of history.
You may find out a lot about yourselves when reading this book. As I create this book, I find out a lot about myself. It has been guided by divine intervention at every page.
God Bless You.
THE LAST MEETING
And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul; neither said any of them that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things common.
The last meeting of the circle of friends that planned, built, and drove the Great Western Furnace into its glory was held on Friday, November 28, 1856. Bringing food and fond memories, they congregated on their own land, a tiny finger of earth nestled safely between the rivers and far away from the hustle of Town and the abuse of commonality. They all lived, peaceably, in that precious land the natives once called the sacred hunting grounds. This isolated haven of wilderness, surrounded by water, had become their sanctuary and the Great Western, a monument to it.
As it did for those who came before them, the land provided everything needed to sustain a long and sufficient life. The land was constant. All that remained was for the people not to come and mess it all up. Sadly, that was happening again. Our togetherness and our hard work now had to adapt and change because it didn’t fit in. Our way of life, the strong way, the logical way, the best way, we thought, and the safest way was not, necessarily, the most beneficial way to the people who were holding the title and the keys to the stocks in Town.
Luke and Brandon were both there and my man, Hilton, was with them. Even the owners made the trip from Pittsburgh. They rode down the Ohio River in style on the Steam Boat Missouri. She carried them as far as Paducah. Then, they caught the Grand Turk and drove her straight up the Cumberland River to Dover. Them folks had real money. They just stayed on the River Boat like they owned it.
The big money people from out of town spent most of the day meeting and talking with Hilton and the Elam boys. They had one table set up for signing papers and another one next to it laid out with some fine Kentucky Bourbon. It had to be good spirits. The drinking table had a nice cloth draped over it with silver trays and it was being poured from some expensive cut crystal pitchers. That Newell man held his glass up to where the sunlight shined right through it and he talked about it like it was something real special before he ever took the first drink. He smelled it first, too, and swirled it around in the glass. He took in the fine flavor, he savored it. Hilton looked like he tried to savor his some too but, mostly, he just swallowed it. He did say it was good sipping whiskey.
The closing papers had been worked on for weeks and all the details ironed out. Signing them now was only a formality. The businessmen made the transitions necessary to shut down the Great Western’s operations. They had full intentions of bringing her back as soon as the conditions warranted.
We didn’t know the Great Western would never burn again. We didn’t know she was already a ghost.
Ultimately, the owners knew the situation. They were abolitionists from Pennsylvania, after all. They knew full well the dangers involved with slavery. It was why they backed the Elams. They liked the Elam approach to the treatment of workers. They wanted quality in their product. They demanded it and they figured out a long time ago that the formula required to get quality included happy and focused workers. They were very disappointed but not surprised, they said, that the end had come. They didn’t expect it to come in two years. Slavery was an issue that would get worse before it got better.
Everyone connected to the Great Western made a small fortune with their pig iron holdings. 104 straight weeks of ever expanding profit paid for the Furnace three times over and the thought of closing it put the owners in a melancholy mood.
They spoke well of the whole operating experience. They called any venture that returned triple their money a successful one and hoped to someday see a return to business in the land by the rivers. Maybe, as early as Spring. There needed to be a downtime, they all agreed. The safety of the workers was paramount. The day operations resumed would depend on the current tension in the County and how long it lasted.
The Great Western was a grand lady. The gathering celebrated her victory. She was safe for the picnic and the weather was unseasonably warm. Her fires had been quenched for seven days and the bricks were cool. The younger children played with their marbles and ate endless food and pie around the structure. The older boys played Town Ball out in front and the matches were quite spirited. Some girls cheered the game and their favorite beau while others happily helped their mothers with the feast.
The adults gathered around the tables and on the table cloths that were spread on the grounds. They were filled with food and laughter and the good times were well remembered by all who were there. God had been good to them and His blessings were bountiful. It showed in their bellies, in their pocketbooks, and on their children’s smiles. Hands were shaken all around and shoulders were held with a celebrated embrace.
Luke said he wasn’t coming if I didn’t make my blackberry pie. He had a piece of it in his hand just about every time I saw him. It was a special togetherness. We were completely disconnected from the rest of that terrible, mean, slave-whipping world. We held our own feeling, as one, and we had one purpose. We protected one another between the rivers.
There was talk going around that Mr. Luke and Mr. Brandon was going to sell their stake in the Great Western. Hilton, sadly, shook his head that it was so. He said we could move back across the River and go back to farming or stay right here and farm. He said we could wait on the Great Western or we could sell everything and move to Chicago, he didn’t care. We had to talk about it, he said. I was excited about all the choices we had, but I didn’t have a clue about which one we would pick. We was just digging in the dirt grapevines ten years ago and now we were talking about moving to Chicago? I just knew that whatever it was, whatever we chose, as long as I was with my man everything would be all right.
Other folks weren’t as confident in the future as I was. They were worried about things changing and about how they would be different. Different, away from the Great Western, was never good. It meant going back. Mr. Luke spoke freely among the assembled men.
“Ladies and Gentleman, to our ownership group represented by Mr. Newell and his family, to Mr. Hilton, and everyone here I thank you all for coming today, on this wonderful day, that the Lord has made for us. Thank you, Ladies, for this abundance of food. I believe I have eaten so much pie that I’m going to turn into a blackberry! I pray that you all have a safe harvest time and prepare well for this winter. Towards that end, towards the preparation of what lies ahead, I have some news I would like to share with you all today.”
Luke took a deep breath and looked around at the faces of those gathered.
“We’ve had a good run men, and ladies. The Great Western has been good for all of us. She has made us prosperous and she made us brave with our successes. But now, we must be smart. These are dangerous and life threatening times that we live in. Make no mistake about that. Our run here wasn’t the long haul of ten and twenty years that we hoped for but it was very good and we’ve learned a lot in these last five years of building and working. We can start this lady back up, and others just like her, when the time is right.”
Proud men with confident smiles agreed. Most were shaking their heads yes and looking at one another with a clearness of direction.
“We’ve come a long way together, friends,” Luke added. “The most important accomplishment that we can claim today is that all of you here are no longer duty bound. My brother and I are most proud to be able to say that, today, all of you here are free men, no longer in bondage. You are free men with free families.”
A loud cheer rose up from the crowd. We were all very happy but, at the same time, we knew not everybody was free. Mr. Luke wasn’t completely right. Jeremiah Porter hadn’t been able to come out to the Furnace to work. He was still on the farm and he still owed a right smart amount on his freedom price. Still, we were happy for everybody else.
“Before now,” Luke delivered, “we always stood our ground. We never backed down from our beliefs or retreated from our positions. Unfortunately, my friends, things have changed. Your lives are now at risk every day simply by coming to work. That is too much strain to bear. Against our owners wishes, but with their full understanding, Brandon and I have sold all of our holdings with the Great Western. Mr. Newell has sold his stake in this project to a firm in Pennsylvania. I’ll not be back after today and I will miss you all very much. I thank you all for your help on this grand experiment. It worked, for a time.”
A load groan came up from those listening to and feeling, his words. But it was a feeling that everybody knew was coming. Luke’s remarks, even though they were expected, fell heavy on everyone’s ears.
“The Committee of Safety rides now,” Luke Elam warned. “Just last week they stopped a free man from Atlanta who was on his way to the Great Western to work. He had heard about us all the way down in Georgia and traveled four hundred miles to get here but when he finally gets to Stewart County, to Parker Town, no less, he is picked up by those ruthless riders. On their accusations of him being a runaway slave, he was robbed, beaten, and thrown into jail. It is incomprehensible. Before that, they burned down Hugh Dotson’s barn, and full of tobacco, because they thought a slave was escaping north, towards the Great Western, and hiding in it. They burnt it down because they said he had a gun. No one was in that barn. The Constable said no one running towards the Great Western would ever be able to hide in it now and he called it all good.
They are targeting our Furnace, friends. Everything they hate starts with us and it will not get better. They have begun monitoring all of our production and our movements, looking for violations of any kind with you workers. They make them up if they can’t find any and it lands you in jail with a beating. Their patrols have closed in on our end of the County and they spend more time up here now than they do across the river towards Clarksville. We’ve decided that to continue our operation puts you all at too great a risk.
As I said, I’ve sold my interest to the highest bidder. Of which, there were many high bids. I recommend that you all do what you will do and you do it now. Collect your monies today and be paid, in full and separate yourselves from this area now. There is not a day to waste. This marks a new era in the life of the Great Western. Many of you may continue working around here and you certainly have that right, but I do not recommend it. You all have the means to leave and if you do not, as free men, see me. The new management has informed me that, due to necessary protective measures that they must take to look out for your safety, if you stay and work you will be paid a far less wage. They said they will have to hire extra security to protect you so I am quite sure that you will have your very own committee of safety, complete with whips, to look out for you, if you know what I mean.”
This statement put bewildered looks on all of the workers. No, they couldn’t work like that, they all agreed.
“This is where Mr. Brandon and myself will go now, back to our tobacco,” Luke relented. “We will let this new age run its course. We ask that all of you come back to the farm with us, if you like. We will farm the crop for a while and plan our options. We have desires to build a Furnace up on Saline Creek, but that must come after a settling period. If you stay here, protect your homes and your family. Brandon and I see grim times ahead.”
Mr. Luke looked sternly in the faces and the eyes of every person there. You would have thought it was your father sitting you down beside him and warning you about the tribulations of life, he was that serious.
“The Committee of Safety aims to stop the escaping of slaves to Kentucky and, believe me, men, they will stop it by all means. They have spilled blood and they will spill more. No one knows how long or how bad or how much will be spilled before they are satisfied. We need to circle our wagons for a time. We need to protect ourselves like never before.”
Times was bad out in the County. We didn’t see all of it but Luke and Brandon did. Somebody new was taken into custody, whipped and even tortured, almost every day. It was cruel and uncivilized. With every new sunrise, it seemed, a new person was picked out from a different community in the County and the Committee of Safety was sent towards that hollow to terrorize, beat, and even arrest them to get them to talk. “Who pays your way,” and, “Where do you get your directions,” was beaten out of them. I was always afraid for my man’s name being mentioned.
Mr. Luke finished up talking to the men. “If you choose not to leave immediately but desire to wait until after the Christmas holiday or even the spring thaw, I beg you to please be aware of the danger and take extra precautions to protect yourselves and your families. Don’t give the Committee any reason to accuse you of being runaways. Keep your free papers with you at all times. Don’t put yourselves in a position of being accused of helping others to escape. Listen to these warnings as they are not without justification. I’ll miss you all. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for everything you have accomplished here and for everything you have accomplished for yourselves. May God bless you and continue to be with you.”
Mr. Luke went directly to Mr. Hilton next.
“Hilton, you must particularly watch yourself. The eyes of the Committee of Safety are on you now. Please do not help anyone go North after today. These woods have ears and they can hear a man passing through. That quiet step you thought you just took was a loud noise just one hollow over and people soon see where those steps came from. Don’t get caught up, Hilton, in staying right here, right now. We would feel much better if you moved back across the river to Saline Creek with us and we offer you that option today. We insist that you move back with us.” Mr. Luke looked at me and touched me on the shoulder, “Elly, it will be safer. You put your foot down and come on back or keep Mr. Hilton close to the house until next year for his own good!”
“Hilton, you will be caught if you help anyone else,” Luke warned. “There are spies out everywhere. They are beating people whenever they suspect a runaway and people are terrified. They are afraid of everything and saying anything. Do nothing until after the new year, Hilton. Let things calm down. Please wait until these beatings stop before you help another runaway across the trail. Do you promise me, Hilton?”
My man looked at me and put his arm around me and I felt strong under his wing. “We promise,” he said. “We’ll decide this week what our plans will be and we will let you know in a few days, a week, at the most. ”
Luke smiled and nodded his head in satisfaction.
Mr. Brandon always liked to make a big thing out of giving a Freedman his papers. He liked the ceremony and, to tell you the truth, so did the Freedman. Mr. Brandon would read off of a piece of paper that told when and where the man had been bought by Cross Elam. He would tell how much his purchase price was and remind everyone in attendance that this price was now repaid in full. He would tell what the dutiful worker did on the farm and tell as many funny stories as he could remember about the man or the woman. Then, he would ask the man to stand up and say a few words, their very first, as a free man. Finally, Mr. Brandon would give all free men of the Elam estate a certificate, their official “Freedom” papers, and a ten dollar gold piece.
Before, when Mr. Luke spoke, I thought about Jeremiah not being free. He was a young man, strong and smart and everybody liked Jeremiah. He had the fortune, or misfortune, however you look at it, of being the last slave purchased by Cross Elam. Jeremiah volunteered to work the farm for the last two years to make the workload easier. He was darn good on the farm and a natural with the animals. He knew what the tobacco needed a week before it needed it. Mr. Brandon had a farm full of that sacred tobacco and he was responsible for all the hard work and sweat that went with it. Jeremiah Porter helped Brandon Elam, most of all, to get it in. He, alone, and the men he directed put out and brought in ten acres of it every year. It was a substantial achievement for any man, but Jeremiah was only 16. Brandon Elam had no other Lieutenants like Jeremiah Porter.
Working at the farm enabled young Mr. Porter to help his mama along. She took sick with a lingering fever and he was all she had to take care of her. He looked after her every morning, most every day at midday, and every night. It was hard on Jeremiah, but everybody helped him in every way that they could. She died on the second anniversary of the Great Western’s operation. Jeremiah stood strong for her at her funeral. His daddy wasn’t there. Nobody knew where he was. At the slave sales, Cross Elam wouldn’t buy him out of spite and the family got split up. They sent his daddy up north. Luke tried to track him once, but the scent went cold in Hopkinsville.
Brandon Elam called Jeremiah Porter up to the front of the Great Western.
“Jeremiah,” he said. “You’ve been patient in waiting to come to the Furnace. You’ve done outstanding work back on the farm all the while hoping to come here to make more money. Unfortunately, there is no longer a Furnace to come to, as we know it. All that being said, we can only come to one conclusion. Jeremiah Porter, Cross Elam bought you at Dover with your mother on March 5th, 1852 when you were 12 years old. You and your mother were purchased for the sum of $900.00. Your mother went to work in the main house and you bonded with every animal on the farm. You tended horses like a seasoned farm hand, you held your half in yoking the oxen, and you suckered tobacco faster than anybody in the row!”
Everybody laughed and Mr. Brandon went on. “We remember, Jeremiah when you first came here and paid too much attention to the ducklings in the pond and they followed you around for days!” More laughter.
“Jeremiah, we can’t bring you here now. It is too dangerous. But we must do right by you. Jeremiah Porter, you are the lone remaining dutiful worker on the Elam farm. As of this day forward your $900.00 freedom debt for you and your late mother, may she rest in peace, is hereby, paid in full. I present to you today, on behalf of my brother and the Elam estate, your certificate of freedom and your Freedman Papers along with a token of our thanks. We hope that you will stay with us on the farm from now until eternity, the ducks need you, (tearful laughter) but from this day forward, it is your choice as a free man to do whatever you wish and to go wherever you choose. Jeremiah, would you like to say anything now, to your friends, as a free man?”
A loud and resounding cheer rose up from the crowd. It echoed through the valley and up toward the roads to Dover. It was probably heard by those damned committee riders but let them hear it, I said. We earned a cheer.
Jeremiah couldn’t say anything. He wanted to but tears just swelled up in his eyes and he was halfway between grinning and smiling and halfway between crying. He was happy and hugging everybody and we was all glad for him and for his mama’s beautiful memory. His eyes said enough for all of us to understand.
He finally spoke. “I don’t know what to say except, thank you. Thank you all for being my friends and my family. Thank you for accepting me and my Mama. She worked hard those first couple of years here and you all made us feel real welcome. Thank you for my mama, for the way you all helped her in her sickness. Thank you for going back and looking for my daddy. I know you tried to find him. I will always call this my home. No matter where I go in my life, I will always claim the land between the rivers as where I am from. You are my family.”
There wasn’t a dry eye at the Great Western. We celebrated freedom there and we celebrated success there. We played there and we ate there. We worked and prayed there and now, we cried there. Even my strong man, Hilton, fought back some tears but he held me tight and I was unashamed. I buried my head, my wet eyes, and my sniffly nose right in my man’s shoulder and I cried like the baby I held in my arms to think we could be so happy and be so free. Hilton was tickling Samuel and they were laughing. It was a good time.
The meeting broke up soon after that. We all went our own ways feeling good about what we had done with ourselves but sad that our good life at the Great Western was coming to an end. I asked Hilton on the way home if he was upset. I knew how much he loved the Great Western.
“Miss Elly,” he said. “I guess I should be, but Mr. Luke called me off to the side while Mr. Brandon was talking to Jeremiah. He pulled me close by his side and handed me this.”
Hilton dropped a leather pouch into my hand. Inside it were ten fifty dollar gold pieces. Mr. Luke and Mr. Brandon had given Hilton back every penny of his five hundred dollars in freedom money that he had earned and paid them since working at the Furnace. They even returned his farm money back to him. I didn’t know what to say.
On the way home we held each other close in the wagon. We smiled some and we cried some. The children slept and I didn’t care how long or how short the trip would be. Time stood still for us on that night, on that wagon. I can still go there, in my mind. On a crisp night, with the stars overhead, I can still feel my man’s coat beside me. It comforts me.
Along with our emotions, something else was in the air that night. A scary coldness. An unknown feeling. It was like something or someone was out there in the clear darkness, waiting. Waiting for us to make a mistake. I worried that everything was too good to be true. Was life supposed to be this easy? Was the suffering over now? Could we just move away from all the sadness?
We didn’t really know what to expect so we expected anything. When it was rumored the next day that Mr. Luke and Mr. Brandon were so worried about what might happen that they changed all of their money into gold, we took notice. When it was heard that they were burying it in secret places on their farm, we took a warning.
End of Chapter 7
THE POWERS THAT BE (Part 2)
He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.
“Three Kings Ace high.”
Thomas Opson exhaled deeply after he showed it. It was an exhaustive breath that revealed just how much he had riding on this bet. His moist, nervous hands were still shaking, but he hid them well. This was all of his money. This was everything he had. He was so far into debt now, from losing at this poker game, that on this particular hand, on this particular night, he had gone the fool’s distance to try and win it all back at once. He bet the Deed to the family farm on one strong hand. Thomas knew that by bringing this Deed, the key to the memory of all his mother and father once held dear, it could end up in the middle of Howard Claiborne’s table. He didn’t care. He still had to bring it. He couldn’t help himself. He could raise no more scratch, after all. He could sell nothing else because there was nothing left to sell. But he was alright, he told himself, as he downed another shot of rye and gritted his teeth. He was just stringing these derelict old men along. He only needed his money and his title to hold out a little longer until the cards could come back around to him. He knew they were coming, he could feel it, and now, with this hand, they had finally found their way back. This hand of cards was the one that he had been waiting for. He had to bet the farm to see it, but it would all be worth it in the end. These three kings would save his Deed and his life and he could go back home with his dignity and a pocketful of power.
The weekly game looked impressive now. It always took on a more sanctified meaning when a man’s life was hanging in the balance. The other men sitting at the table had been waiting on Opson to play this particular hand for a long time, too, and they very much enjoyed the moment.
Opson’s long lost Deed to his long forgotten home was now a very valuable piece of paper sitting propped up on a mountain of cash, coin, and slave gold all within the reach of Howard Claiborne. He wasn’t about to let it get away. Claiborne had worked too long and too hard, he had invested too much time and too much money, to lose this prize now. It capped, nicely, the remainder of everything young Thomas Opson owned. More importantly to Claiborne, it was all of his daddy’s holdings, as well.
The farm had become bare and impoverished under Opson’s care and it was a shell of it’s former, “Major and Anna Opson,” grandeur but Thomas cared nothing of that past pomp. He never did. He didn’t have to work for it or pay for it so why should he care for it. It was just barter to him.
He only knew that another shot of rye and a winning hand was all that stood between him and a return to his well-deserved way of life.
This new life of Thomas Opson, the poor, working man’s life, was unlike any that he had ever known and he didn’t like it. Living a life with nothing provided, living a life where nothing was made available to simply stuff into his pockets, was completely foreign to him. It was beneath him not to have his desires planned and laid out for the day. His whole life had been a life of privilege. No one ever told him no and if they did he would simply ask another. He was given every advantage to succeed. Business opportunities waited around every corner. Even with this leg up, so to speak, he failed many times over. His mistakes would have sunk most men, but his father’s financial success sustained him through all of his poor decisions. Failure upon failure was cloaked with the protection of living a charmed life.
But now, with the passing of time and foolish repetitiveness, things were different. Opson could not bring in the revenue that he needed to sustain him. He spent more than he made. He outlived his inheritance. He had to ask how much things cost. It was just a matter of time before economics caught up with him.
Howard Claiborne knew this. His eye had been on the Opson estate for a long time.
Thomas Opson no longer straddled the fiery black stallion that he was accustomed to riding. His personal saddle and tack had been sold long ago to buy whiskey or to satisfy gambling debts. Now, he rode a fair filly to the weekly Claiborne game. She was a respectable nag, but she had nowhere near the status of a man’s horse. King Gatlin sold him the filly for a less than decent amount. Gatlin later said in private circles that he made up the difference in price with a full measure of satisfaction.
Only Amos Green was left of the slaves and he lived alone in the slave’s quarters. This was his home. He had nowhere else to go. There was no garden for him to tend, no potatoes to dig or store. There was no livestock to keep. Amos stayed busy chopping wood, drawing water, and taking care of Thomas Opson. He sold some of the wood he stacked up to keep himself in food. Opson didn’t care. All he needed was somebody to keep him from freezing to death in the winter. Sometimes he drank too much but he wasn’t stupid. He was going to take care of himself and Amos Green was his protector.
Thomas Opson lived alone now in the main house, empty of furniture. It rang with hollow echoes whenever people inside of it spoke. Except for him and Amos Green, no one else came to the Opson house. That was fairly predictable. Thomas Opson had no friends. None other, that is, than those he paid well for their time and even that money was running thin. The stables remained empty since Olive Retterree-Smith was killed in them three years before. The once, well-trimmed trails had grown up with a new brush and the ground had become thick with fallen tree branches and scattered rocks and occasional riders preferred to dodge them rather than clear them out of the way.
The idea of cleaning and clearing those trails or, for that matter, any part of that farm, was far from the mind of Thomas Opson right now. Another shot of Howard Claiborne’s easy rye chased those images right out of his head.
On this long anticipated night of gambling, he had Howard Claiborne and his money right where he wanted them, square, in his sights. The old man’s money was in that pot now and it was a life changer. This big pay-off would be the end of all the bad times for Thomas Opson. He promised himself that. After this night, he would go back home with his Deed and his fortune. All told, it was a $50,000 treasure laying on that table in front of him and he felt confident it would soon be his.
He almost couldn’t contain his smile.
Only he and Claiborne were left in the game. The other three participants in the hand folded. Their roles were complete. Opson believed they thought he was bluffing and he snickered inside to think he had outsmarted them and forced them to throw in once they realized he wasn’t. If Howard Claiborne could beat this hand he deserved to win it, he told himself, but that wasn’t going to happen. Not tonight. He had worked too hard to get these witless players back into his sights. He had them all in them, once, in those first few months of play. Now, he finally found himself looking back down on them and Thomas liked the view from the top. He picked up a solid hand, just in the nick of time, and it was sorely needed. He drew a bead on all of them at the table but only Howard Claiborne remained. Thomas closed in for the kill. It was just like shooting birds, he thought. Soon, he would collect his trappings and go home.
The weekly poker game at the Claiborne compound started out well for Thomas. When he first began to attend the very private game he was a winner. He won nearly $5,000 during play that first winter and he frolicked in the bouquet of new money. He bought five new slaves and promptly sold them for a hefty profit. He bought a pretty little filly and made a fine gift of it to a lady friend he desired in Cumberland City. He began looking forward to taking Howard Claiborne and his rich friend’s money on a regular basis. He fancied himself to be a sort of riverboat gambler. He acted like it, anyway, with the fanciful airs he put on. He bought the gambler hat and the gambler coat and vest and he sported them well. He smoked a fine cigar in the role.
Then, as things usually go at another man’s table, Opson won a little and lost a little at the weekly game. This went on for some time. All along, he began to learn the ways of Howard Claiborne and his circle of men. These were the men who held the title of Dover. Claiborne owned and operated the Dover Furnace and Judge Virgil Kaney was his right-hand man in Town. Dover Furnace Keeper Mathias Boswell was a stern taskmaster and severe administer of punishment against work-weary slaves but not much pumpkin at the poker table. Thomas Opson thought they were all easy men to read. He had, after all, taken $5,000 of their money before. He had ridden those River Boats to Nashville. He had seen how real riverboat gamblers worked a table. He knew what he was doing, he said, and he continued to dangerously risk even more of his wealth looking for the big return. Howard Claiborne appreciated this kind of unbridled recklessness and enjoyed having Opson at his table.
So now, for Thomas, after nearly two years at the game, things had taken a drastic turn for the worst. Six months before he lost $5,000 in just one week. Now, he was down a total of $20,000 and his daddy’s farm was on the line. He really didn’t mean for it to get away from him like this. He even lost his capital for trading flesh of any kind on the blocks in Town and there was no credit for Thomas in the poor house.
Opson drank more as his losing streak was extended and the rye helped him to forget just how deeply he had fallen into debt. He didn’t know he hit the bottom until he found himself looking up out of the hole. His daddy never prepared him for this view. The view looking up with no one there to give you a hand was scary for Thomas. He cursed his parents for that.
Howard Claiborne knew everyone at his table very well. Thomas Opson was his mark and all sitting there knew it. The game was on. It might take two years to complete but the end was never in question. It had been signed, sealed, and delivered long ago.
Claiborne led his mark along for a few months and let him taste a little gambling sweetness. Part of the fun, Claiborne mused. But it was a rigged game, after all. Only the mark was unaware of the crookedness and it was only a matter of time before he was ruined or, to his credit, made his escape. He could run or play, Howard Claiborne didn’t care which way the mark chose to go. That specific seat at his table never suffered for the lack of a willing participant.
“Three Aces King high,” Howard Claiborne apologized. “What a hand,” he exclaimed, wiping his brow and face with a clean white handkerchief he pulled from his vest. “You had me worried Opson. I thought you had a Full House.”
“You’ve got to be joking, Claiborne!” Virgil Kaney proposed with a very surprised look on his face. Virgil Kaney was but one stooge at the Howard Claiborne table of thieves.
“No, not joking. I drew the third Ace.” Claiborne provided as he looked across the table at his broken man.
Thomas Opson sat stunned and staring at the table. The shaking in his hand that he was able to control before had now gotten away from him and he had to hold it down under his leg to keep it still. He held his hand and heard only the sound of his heartbeat. He didn’t know what to do. He had never been beaten this low before. He didn’t know if he could get up from his chair and didn’t know where he would go if he did. He felt sick.
Howard Claiborne was well aware of his latest victim’s feelings. He had broken many men and Thomas Opson was just the most current. He broke them all in typical fashion, mostly the same way, and even though he liked him, Thomas was no different, he reminded himself, he didn’t care who his daddy was. He played him against his own greed. He let him win a little, he strung him along. It was Claiborne’s favorite way of destroying men. This way, he got to enjoy doing it. It didn’t bother him so much that it was cheating when he could blame the loser’s ruination and destruction on his own greed. In this way, it became fair sport to him. Besides, these little men like Thomas Opson with their paltry, one farm holdings couldn’t break him. Howard Claiborne was a Furnace Owner. He knew of the power and money ten times more than what Thomas Opson understood.
“I’ll tell you what I will offer, Thomas, because I do like you,” Claiborne proposed as he picked up the Opson family deed in his hands and looked it over. “I hope there are no ill feelings towards all of this. To show you how bad I feel I will give you seven days from today to come up with the money to buy your farm back, no questions asked. This farm is worth $15,000 dollars in its current shape. Bring me the money within a week and you can have it back, Opson, no questions asked. Otherwise, I’ll need to be getting in there to do a little cleanup and I would appreciate it if you could have all of your belongings out by then. I understand you have one slave remaining on your property?” Claiborne had already been surveying his pending acquisition.
“If you can’t come up with the money in seven days make sure the slave stays on the farm.” Howard Claiborne dismissed Opson with that and he was escorted outside to his filly. Opson had nothing left to offer Claiborne. Why else would he remain in his house?
As he rode his filly out the gates of Howard Claiborne’s ranch Opson realized that he didn’t have any more rye in his coat pockets. The Claiborne estate had just gotten more powerful and he was out of business in Stewart County in one week. Thomas Opson was mad that he was out of rye and he was mad that he had lost all of his money but most of all he was mad because his daddy didn’t leave him more.
When he got home, he found one last half bottle of spirits in the house and he swigged it down with a desperate silence. He sat not as a man contemplating his own demise or the fight back from it but more as of a rat cornered, looking for the bite that would set him free. The last thing Thomas Opson remembered before he passed out, penniless and homeless, was the fact that he was finished as a man in Stewart County. He was worth less than dirt. At least the dirt had a value. He would have to work now for a living and he would have to be keenly aware of the price of things lest he could not afford to buy them. It terrified him to know that he was equal, or less than equal now, to everyone else.
Howard Claiborne made the trip to Town on Saturday morning with a zesty little hitch in his unholy step. He had a new Deed to file away in his collection and that always put him in a satisfied frame of mind. He and the Judge had a fine, made to order breakfast in their private booth at the Dover Cafe.
“Let’s go outside, Virgil, and smoke on these fine cee-gars.” Howard Claiborne had concluded all of his business for the day. That included paying old Virg’ $3,000 dollars for his part in the elaborate “game” that was used to fleece the ignorant Thomas Opson.
“He could have left when he was $5,000 dollars ahead, Howard.” The Judge reminded Claiborne. “They never do. He sure was shaking.”
“Frankly, I would have thought more of him if he had left,” Claiborne added. “Of course, I would have gotten my money back somewhere. You know that to be true, Judge.” Howard Claiborne laughed. “I like that boy, though. He is a ruthless sob.”
“Sir, how are you doing this morning? Good morning, Sir. Is there a place nearby with fresh water where we can rest our livestock and where my family might take leave of our travels? We’ve split from the wagon party to camp for a few days.” The voice was directed at Claiborne and Kaney as they sat on the front porch of The Dover Cafe. They looked to be the perfect people to ask observing, as they were, the Town and enjoying their tobacco. The questions came from an inappropriately dressed pioneer sitting on a mule drawn wagon and next to a slender woman of strong heritage. A younger daughter peeked through from between them at the old men on the porch.
The wagon was loaded to the top, front and back, with ware and tack and the iron hanging on it clanged, clattered and jangled with every turn of it’s wheels. A yoke of oxen in the back and four mules in the front meant that this was a real family of settlers. A fine Brown Derby Stallion with white socks was towing alongside.
“You got yourself a fine rig there, settler,” Claiborne admired the whole outfit. He sized it up with a covetous heart before he even considered answering the question. He was always looking for the next mark and a seat had just come open at his table. “Where you folks, headed?” Claiborne smiled on the inside thinking about how funny the foreign man sounded when he spoke.
“We’re going to St. Lou,” the pioneer woman chirped up. “My husband here is a fine silversmith. We are traveling from Savannah, Georgia to old St. Lou to set up a silversmith and leather shop. From there, we’re going to send those gold seekers westward. Yes, sir! We’ll send those California dreamers across the frontier, yes we will, and they’ll have the finest silver and leather available to hold them on their trip. My man is a fine silversmith.”
“Yes, I understand that,” the Judge ruled.
“I have some gold Dutch ingots that I would like to trade in at your bank, Sir. If you offer that service,” the naive traveler revealed.
“Well, that won’t be till Monday now,” Claiborne advised as he looked at his pocket watch. “Being in the wilderness as we are here, you understand that our exchange rate for Dutch slave gold will be a little higher than back in Clarksville.”
“We came through Dickson, friend. And this is honest family money earned through honest silversmithing and trading,” the pioneer insisted.
“All right,” Claiborne released a large puff of his cigar smoke off the railing of the porch. “Head down the river, that’s going North, out of Town and pretty soon you’ll come up on a string of farms. Pick one out and see if they’ll let you tender your stock there for a while. You come on back Monday and we’ll see about trading in some of that Dutch gold. I wouldn’t tell too many people about that, Missy. This is rough country, you know.”
“We are God-fearing folks, Mister. We trust in the Lord to see us through to good ‘ol St. Lou! But, thank you, just the same. Get on up, mules! We’ll be back, Monday, Lord willing.” The hopeful adventurer whipped the reins of the mules and they moved forward, North, down the river and out of town.
Opson woke up to the low, bellow grunting sounds of Oxen off his front porch and it irritated him. He squinted through one eye and asked the ill-advised settlers if they knew what time it was?
“One-thirty, by my pocket watch,” the male settler answered. “Sir, we are sorry to disturb you,” he added. “We are seeking a place to tender our animals. Would you be obliged to allow us to camp at your creek’s side? We’ll need to stay and have access to water for our animals for three or four nights. We’ll require nothing else other than a safe haven to use as our rest and fresh water for our barrels. We can pay you in gold or silver or we can convert it to cash for our stay. Can you help us, Sir?” We are bound for old St. Lou!
Opson heard the pioneer mention gold, silver, and cash. He spied the belongings of the family and thought it to be a fine way for someone to start out new. They must have everything they needed, he gained, to start off fresh anywhere in the Country.
“You have a lot invested here, sir. It’s a splendid way to travel.” Opson knew when to put on airs and he looked, at once, interested. “You have a lot of iron on your wagon, Mister. Your yoke is strong and your oxen are healthy. You have good mules with fine tack. Your load is simple, but it is very sturdy. I am interested if you don’t mind my asking, in what you hope to find in St. Louis? Do you have a trade? I have recently had the interest to visit there,” Opson lied with that last statement and, if he were telling the truth, it would be his last resort to escape to St. Louis. Opson knew he stood out like a sore thumb in the city. His money soon parted ways with him whenever he visited there.
The reality for Thomas Opson now was that he had no money and in six days he would have no farm.
“I am a silversmith. I am a simple watch maker, a tinkerer.” We hope to provide tack and silversmithing to all the wagoners heading west across the great frontier. I will build my watches and create my silver in St. Lou as I sell leather to the pioneers. Everything we have is here with us. All of our hopes and the hopes of our children ride with us,” the simple man told. “We have staked our future in the growth of this country.”
“You folks are more than welcome to stay here, on my farm.” Opson offered.
He couldn’t see any reason for going any further west in this country. According to Opson, it was all just wilderness out there. He thought these people were fools. He looked their holdings over closely.
“Just ease your animals and wagon up around that barn yonder about a half mile up the road until you come to the creek. Anywhere up on the other side of that hill and alongside the creek is fine. Set your camp up along in there. I’ll come up after supper and we’ll discuss a small payment, for my troubles, if you don’t mind. I may be interested in moving west, myself. Maybe you could give me some advice. Maybe we could talk about it over a shot of rye if you are so inclined.”
“Well, maybe one,” the trusting outsider smiled.
Thomas Opson was at the end of his rope and all out of ideas. He had nothing left to lose. He knew a dark man who owed him a lot of money and at least one evil favor. This man lived down a row of oak trees going west out of Town and Thomas would be calling on him now. There was always one sure way to get ahead in the wilderness. It generally meant bloodshed but Thomas Opson was not above it. The survival of the fittest was all he knew. He would need help. Certain people knew that the man from down the oak tree row wasn’t afraid of blood. He was known to spill blood for money. Thomas would call in a long overdue favor and have to pay nothing for it.
Such are the deeds of unscrupulous men. For them, in their evil ways, the only art is in not getting caught. These two men had never come close to getting caught.
Thomas Opson’s history was dark. The man from down the oak tree row was about to help make it darker.
The settler, the awkward pioneer, was a slightly bashful man. He was well educated and it showed in his speech. He wore a fancy shirt and it made him look out of place in the back woods of Tennessee and Kentucky. He would probably not be well appreciated until he reached St. Louis. Once there, he could congregate with men of his own skill, with men of his own knowledge and craft. The scholarly voyager had studied hard his whole life and had invested well his Dutch inheritance. He spent his entire youth and most of his adult life refining his talents and over time he became a master silversmith, a jeweler, and a precise watchmaker. He was brilliant at working all of those crafts, but he was a fish out of water on a back washed creek in the Town with mean eyes.
His wife was the accountant. She was the investor, the speculator, and the decision maker of the family. On her insistence, they had taken the safer route to St. Louis and were now, with just a few days rest ahead of them, entering the final leg of their journey. She was a proud and strong woman. She was smart, too. She had her family’s life ahead of her and she knew it. Soon, she prayed, they would meet their destiny.
“Evelyn, you help mother gathering fire wood and I’ll set up a corral for the animals. We’ll start a good fire here by this creek and settle in for a few days before we make our final push to St. Lou. I like this area, Evelyn. It’s very nice here by the rivers and hunting and fishing is plentiful, I am sure. We must be sure to visit this way again if we are to send for your cousins after us.” The unpolished pioneer roped his corral together and tended the livestock toward the water.
The young girl fired a howling straight and sharp arrow towards a dry heap of brush and sticks 30 steps away. It found it’s target and sucked into the wooden branch’s side with a zip and a vibrating thud. Her bow was seasoned hickory made by the Cherokee tribe of Northeast Georgia and she could hit her mark at 30 paces with ease. She was never without her bow.
The ladies had become very efficient in building fires all along the trail to St. Lou. They knew how to light off the chaff and straw from the sparks of the flint stone. They learned how to listen for the crackle and pop and knew exactly where to place the tiny dry sticks and stems. They knew how to properly stack the bark or kindling on top of that and let it all catch up into a rousing flame. They accumulated a fine stand of dried wood and it would easily last the night. The added glow of safety from the fire’s flame was a low priority and one they hardly considered. This was a safe place. The mother and the 16-year-old daughter surrounded the fire with stones.
“Let’s fry up some of that ham over this fire tonight, ladies,” the proud pioneer granted. We can make this load a little lighter on the mules for the last part of the trip.”
“Finally! We can almost see our destination and the last moves toward it are here.” The odds making wife had been more than a little nervous to leave the wagon train in Dickson, but an argument about leadership had stalled their progress. This family leader decided to press their wagon onward through the presumed safety of a well populated, iron furnace country. Traveling this route, she hoped, they could dot and spot their way up through the wilderness all the way to Paducah. A well-deserved rest, however, was in order before the final push. Each step was like a very calculated chess move to her. She wasn’t ready to celebrate just yet, but she did allow herself a smile to be another step closer to old St. Lou. She knew that once they arrived there they would find the successful life that they had prepared for, the life they were looking for.
Amos Green smelled that country ham cooking a mile away. He followed his nose right to it. Dogged if it weren’t coming from up on his creek! He thought, at first, it was Mister Thomas cooking something back there by that creek, but that was just craziness. He was less surprised to see a family of settlers easing around the big fire.
“That ham sure does smell good, folks. Does Mister Thomas know you folks is up on his creek?” Amos Green didn’t care about the answer to the question. He hadn’t had country ham in a long time. Two Christmases ago, best he could remember, over at the Gatlin farm.
“My name is Amos Green. I work for Mister Thomas. I cut wood, too. If ya’ll like I can keep you in all the wood you need for that fire. I can bring you a whole load of wood. I’d do it just for a piece of that ham, too.” Amos bartered.
“Sounds like a fair deal to me,” the ham frying pathfinders agreed. “Eat now, work tomorrow.”
“Just to be sure,” the settlers joked, “Are you sure you’re not just a drifter drawn up here by the smell of this fine home cooking to parlay a piece of our ham for your belly and then be gone as quick as a summer morning’s dew?”
“Oh, no sir.” Amos pleaded. “I do work this land for Thomas Opson. It is looking a little poorly right now, but she has seen better times.”
“Come on in by the fire, Amos Green. You are welcome here.”
Amos beamed and he sidled up next to the fire with the smell of fried country ham hanging in the air. He would work extra hard to keep this family in wood tomorrow. The way to Amos Green’s heart was through his stomach. He broke bread with this family and now he owed them to fulfill his promise.
“What kind of country is this, Amos?” the simple pilgrim asked. “It looks very nice.”
“This is rough country, Mister,” Amos said it with a shrug of his shoulders and a dip of his chin. He had a shudder in his voice that was evoked by hidden chills coming from inside his coat. “It’s okay if you live here, if you know somebody, or if you are related. You’ll get by alright, then. But if you ain’t from around here this is a hard place to get a foot hold in. People are hard here and some of them, they mean, too. They were some good ones around here one time, but most of them done died off by now.” Amos looked into the fire as he spoke. “Its cold in the winter here and powerful hot in the summer. Best to have your crops in early ’cause you can’t never tell when the rains gonna fall so hard the creek gets washed away. I’ve seen this creek right here plumb over that bank and backed up to the barn down by the house.”
“That Opson man seems a little distant, pilgrim. He seems a little put on.” The pioneer woman called her man a pilgrim and it was funny, but her senses were warning her. “Let’s keep our distance from him and leave a day earlier than we had planned. We can catch up with the wagon party in Paducah and we can all parade into old St. Lou in style.”
“That’s a good reckoning, Miss. You and your family move on to your wagon party as soon as you can. You’ll be safer with them.” Amos Green had instincts, too. He knew this family was rich. They had means. They had silver on everything. They all had nice cotton clothes and good shoes to go around. They had iron and food and the best canvas topped wagon ever seen to pass through these parts. Amos knew they acted proper. They weren’t so hungry at suppertime. They took their time at hunting things up. They talked about it first. Amos wasn’t used to this kind of friendship. He felt like it had a calming effect on him. He liked these good people.
Amos was about to tell the wagoners the best and shortest trail to take to get through to Kentucky when the crack of a whip was heard snapping beside the steps of a burdened filly laboring up the creek.
It was Thomas Opson come calling.
“Remember what I said, pilgrim.” The settler told her man. She looked at her daughter, too. “Keep your lips tight.”
Opson splashed up the creek to camp and dismounted. He distanced himself from the humble filly. “Well, you folks have made a very nice camp here. You have everything you need, it seems, and by the smell of that fine aroma you have a good supper, too.”
“I see you have met Amos.” Amos started for the barn.
“Thank you for the ham, Ma’am. I’ll have your wood here first thing in the morning.” Amos knew his place when Mr. Thomas was around. He was soon out of sight.
“I hope your animals are well watered, Sir. And Miss, I thank you for feeding my man servant.” Thomas encouraged the settlers with a smile. He wanted them to be at ease.
“Your man said he is bringing wood for us tomorrow. We will stay two days and then continue our journey. We thank you, Sir, for allowing us to rest upon your land. What is your charge for us, Sir, for two days lodging?” The lady was speaking.
“We’ll say two dollars a night for two nights. Does that sound fair?” Opson figured.
The lady thought it was a little high, but she knew the wood would save them a lot of work. “Agreed,” she said.
“Would you like some ham, sir?” I cured it myself.
“No, thank you, Miss. But I will have that shot of rye if you have it.”
“I’m sorry, sir. We have no rye.”
“No bother,” Opson waved it away. I would like to discuss other business, he imposed. “If you need anything or if you need to barter gold I can get you a better rate than anyone else in Town. Did you need to exchange some gold?”
“Not much,” the settlers gave up.
“Think about it.” Tomorrow I’d like to look at some of your silversmithing if you don’t mind.” Opson tipped his hat and towed his filly off in the direction of Amos Green.
“Don’t show him the gold tomorrow, husband. Maybe a watch or a silver trinket chest but keep the ingots well hidden as I do not trust him. After what the negro shared with us of the untidiness of the grounds, he seems a little too pushy. He seems desperate. And he looks at Evelyn in a common way,” his wife added. “I don’t like him.”
Thomas Opson had a visitor stay that night with him. The man from down the oak tree row was a hunter, by nature, and a killer. He tracked everything from mountain lions to humans. Thomas Opson had him tracking a family of settlers tonight. The man from down the oak tree row watched their every move. He looked for the gold box. He looked for the money. Had they hidden it yet? On the trail most would hide their valuables away from the wagon until they were loaded up for travel. All through the night, nothing stirred in the wagon. It was as if the wagon was staring back at the night. Neither blinked. Early in the morning, two hours before daybreak, the spy caught his prey. The tinkerer went up a certain trail away from the wagon and brought back with him a velvet bag.
The hunter slipped backed to Thomas Opson and told him the news. The gold was up that trail. He knew which one, how far, and probably just about exactly where it was.
“Tonight, we act,” Opson ordered. “I’ll spend the day occupying them with kindness. You sharpen your knives. Well after dark, when all is quiet, we will separate the husband and tie him up. Make sure to gag his mouth so he can’t scream. Then, we will tie up and gag the girls. If we can’t find the gold we will use them against one another to find it and then you will use your knives to quickly kill the mother and father. Once the first blood is spilled we can not stop. We must finish the job quickly. I will kill the girl later and dispose of the remains. You will go back to your house on the oak tree row and your debt to me is forgiven.” Opson spoke with a cold-blooded calculation in his veins. “Be back here at dusk with your knives and wait for me.”
Amos Green brought wood early in the morning. It was a big wagon load, dried, and busted up with kindling, too. He ate another piece of ham with a biscuit after the wood was unloaded and he thought he was in hog heaven.
Thomas Opson showed up early on that Sunday morning, too. He kept the pilgrims busy moving the stock and inspecting the fine workmanship of their prairie schooner. He finally got around to asking to see about the ware.
The silversmith pulled a magnificent silver piece of work from his blue velvet bag. “Here is something I tinker with,” he said. “The drawers open and you can put the trinkets inside. This is my own hallmark stamped on the bottom. This, here, is a watch I made for my father but he passed last year so I guess it is mine now.”
“This is very fine workmanship, silversmith. Did you really do this? Are you capable of this? I am surprised.” Thomas Opson couldn’t grasp the quality of greatness even as he was standing immersed in it.
“Yes, sir. I assure you. I created these pieces,” the proud smithy chuckled to himself. Oh, to be in old St. Lou, he dreamed, where art could be appreciated and men were not so callously desperate and foul smelling.
“Have you thought about your gold transfer, pilgrim? I leave for Clarksville in the morning and can be back with your exchange Tuesday, in time to see you off.” Opson was not dropping the subject.
“We think we’ll wait on the transfer of gold, sir. We have enough food and water now to see us through to the outskirts of Paducah. But we do thank you for your care. There is a matter of four dollars and here you are, sir. Thank you.” The woman always did the talking and she did the paying, too.
“Well, I’m off then,” Opson responded as he accepted the tender. “Thank you and if I don’t return before you leave it was a pleasure having you here. Enjoy your last night on our farm and I bid you safe travels.”
Opson tipped his hat and mounted his filly to ride away. The settlers breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed, understanding that he was gone from their lives for good.
Thomas Opson sent Amos Green, along with a dollar, to get some feed at the Feed Store on the south side of Dover. He instructed him to return in the morning.
Just after dark a large commotion was made coming up from the barn. Opson was back on his filly and riding hard towards the settler’s camp.
“Put on your shoes, pilgrim.” Opson yelled. “There’s a fire in Town and the whole square is going to burn if we don’t get it put out. We need every man available to man the bucket brigade.”
“We’ll all go,” the lady volunteered.
“No, just men,” Opson schooled. “You two stay here.”
The willing pioneer threw on his boots and rode his horse bareback with Opson toward the Town. After they were past the barn and out of camp’s sight the man from the house on oak tree row jerked up a rope between two trees on the trail and the silversmith was caught by it and thrown violently to the ground. It knocked him out and almost broke his neck. Thomas Opson and his associate tied the camper up and gagged his mouth.
The hunter slipped up behind the girls as Opson led his kidnapped victim back into camp. When the adept woman saw here husband tied up and walking in front of Opson she knew they were in trouble. Before she could scream or think to run the dark man leaped from the cover of trees and put a sharp knife to her back and a strong arm around her neck. He began to tie her hands and feet.
“Sit still, young’un or your mother won’t look so good.” The man from down the oak tree row threatened the young girl.
“Quiet, Missy and no one gets hurt. Where is the gold? Opson demanded of the young girl, but she was wasn’t talking.
“We’ll tell you where it is and no one gets hurt, right?” the mother begged. “We’ll just be on our way. We’ll give it to you.”
“No one gets hurt. On my mother’s grave, I swear to that,” Opson replied.
The lady motioned to the girl and she ran up the trail and came back with a large box. It was filled with Dutch ingots of gold, and gold coins from all the old countries and was almost more than she could carry. Opson calculated that there was at least enough gold, silver, and jewelry in that box to pay for a farm.
“We have what we came for.” Opson nodded to the man with the sharp knives. The dark man grabbed for the mother and, at once, drove his dagger deep into her back and into her heart. Then, he pulled it out and slit her throat before she could fall to the ground. Opson guarded the box and the girl and the man from the oak tree row quickly walked over to the bound pioneer. He slit his throat as a seasoned farmer with a sharp blade would slit the throat of a hog. It was clean, thorough, and the skillful tinkerer was lost forever to the Stewart County night.
In a second the young girl realized what was happening. She screamed and bolted, retrieving her quiver and bow on the dead run from its perch, but the hunter closely pursued. After about 30 paces she felt his breath on her and she turned, in a spectacular spin, to whip him harshly on the side of his cheek with her cane-like bow. It was a slashing blow landing both hickory branch and twine to its target and it burned into the skin of the oak tree row man. It knocked him off his stride, if only for a moment. The true tempest had time for one last pull of her string. The final arrow was let loose and flew towards Opson just as the hunter pounced, with his knife, on top of her. His lunge knocked her aim off, ever so slightly. Thomas watched the flight of the air piercing arrow all the way from where it left her bow. As if in slow motion he watched the entire arc and aim of the sharp tipped hickory stick until it burned into his left shoulder. He could not change its path and he could not move his body. It flew too fast and he moved too slow. The arrow stuck in him and he dropped the box of gold. He writhed in pain and clutched the bloody stick and it could not have been truer or more painful had it been launched from the bow of a proud Indian Brave.
Evelyn had fought the good fight for her mother and for her father. She fought the good fight for herself, too. Now, she lie on the ground bleeding, with a dagger run through her side, another victim of the County.
“I wish I had the time to devote to you, Missy,” Opson spoke to the dying girl as she looked at the end of everything she knew lying in front of her. Her last arrow was embedded deeply in her killer’s shoulder. That would leave her mark, she understood. The dark stranger with the striped and bloody cheek held her neck open and bare. With one deliberate, painstakingly slow motion, Opson sliced her from ear to ear.
It was all over very quickly. Three lives had been taken and they weren’t coming back. No one else was the wiser. Opson had just acquired a lot of gold and silver and, to him, that was all that mattered. Three more lost lives meant nothing to him. He was used to killing now.
He piled the bodies on that fancy wagon and drove them deep into the woods to where no one could see them. He burned it all up in a ritual fire and laughed at the simpleton’s skeletons as he poked at their remains on the following day.
Amos Green questioned why the settlers left early. The blood was dusted up pretty good, but Amos Green was no fool. He spotted it. Later, he found the ruins of the wagon and the skeletons, too. What could he do? He prayed for their souls. He never ate a piece of country ham again.
On Tuesday, Thomas Opson made his way directly to Howard Claiborne.
“I have $10,000, Mr. Claiborne,” Opson proclaimed. I was able to raise it out of Kentucky. It’s all I have. Will you accept it and allow me to stay on my farm?”
“It’s my farm, Opson. I have the Deed to it and it is transferred.” Claiborne reminded. “You have cash, Opson?”
“No, it is in gold and silver. Look for yourself.”
Howard Claiborne inspected the contents of Thomas Opson’s large box of precious metals.
“Where did you come across these Dutch ingots, Opson? This is slave trade gold. And that is a fine white socked, brown stallion you now straddle. Did he come from Kentucky, too?”
“I sold slaves for that gold, Howard. They are from a deal I had forgotten about in Kentucky. The silver added in there with it makes for a tidy sum of $10,000! Will you accept it as a down payment on the property? You said no questions asked.”
“Come, sit with me, Thomas Opson.” Howard Claiborne directed.
Claiborne spoke so only Opson could hear.
“I know where those gold Dutch ingots came from, Opson and by the looks of your shoulder, someone put up a pretty good fight against you. I don’t know how you came into possession of the gold or what happened to that family of settlers that owned them, but I do know that I have them now. I will take this gold and allow this as one-half payment towards my farm. You may stay on the property for now, but you still owe me $10,000 to have your Deed returned.”
“How will I pay you, Howard?”
“You will work for me, Opson. I need a new Constable. The old one has not worked out. I own you now, Opson. Never forget that. I know I can find that family if I look hard enough and I can put you under that jail. You owe me $10,000. You work for me now. You are my new Constable. You can work out of the Court House in Town and the Jailhouse and people can believe you are somebody special, but you check with me every day to see what I need. You understand that, Opson? Every day! Is that clear, boy?” Claiborne showed him the badge.
Thomas Opson put it on and went to look over his new office. He went by the livery stable and traded the Brown Derby for a fine black stallion, no questions asked, and all on the courtesy of Howard Claiborne. Opson drank for free in the tavern. He was a Howard Claiborne hired gun now. He took his marching orders from him every day. He assembled a group of criminals, a committee of riders, to accompany and protect him. His right-hand man was the dark stranger who lived at the end of the oak tree row.
Thomas Opson was back in control now. His power was unchallenged, unquestioned, and his laws weren’t written down in any books.
End of Chapter 6.
Long live Charlie Hebdo! is the translation of this PNN story.
Charlie Hebdo becomes a stand on principle.
The latest edition of Charlie Hebdo shows a picture of the Prophet Muhammad under a caption that reads, “All is Forgiven”. The cartoon of the Islamic Prophet also holds a sign that says, “I am Charlie.”
Satire at it’s finest, according to PNN. It could only be topped on the next cover by Obama, Boehner, and McConnell all kissing in one of those slobbering and grossly effective Charlie Hebdo cartoons. But, alas, this is a French magazine and these are real French issues that we must come to grips with and understand.
After the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, PNN published a memorial to those who lost their lives in that planned attack against the free flow of opinion and fluid idealism. In our memorial we recognized what Charlie Hebdo stands for and all those committed to free speech who were killed there.
After a brief time, PNN removed the tribute. We were moving on.
However, it has become necessary now to rally round the rights of free speech. In the days following the assault, free speech has become a question mark. It has become a stand on principle.
Do we still have it?
This story will stay up until The Excitement Chapter 6 The Powers That Be Part 2, is ready. To PNN’s loyal readers, that will be any day. Unlike the last two chapters, I would like to get it a little closer to being finished before I put it out. Thanks for your patience.
Vive Charlie Hebdo!
DATELINE PARIS, FRANCE 1/7/2015
Parisians, Frenchmen, and the world remembers Charlie Hebdo.
This is war. Prepare yourselves from Potneck to Paris.
Free Speech was attacked yesterday by a violent middle eastern religion that has no tolerance for anyone who disagrees with it.
Is that true? Or, is this another false flag attack to further divide the world into perpetual war and continuous fighting for ideology?
Is it Muslims against the rest of us?
This is becoming the perception more and more today. It has been projected in the mass media as such and this religion is secretly believed by many to be of a suspicious behavior. Much of this belief stems from the beheading occurrences that seem to follow it.
Suspicion was the moderate perception of the religion even before yesterday’s attack. Most Americans, and most Potneckers, still want to believe in the acceptance of Islam as a peaceful religion. The mass media was, and is, largely complicit in the selling of the “Nation of Peace” ideology and, as tolerant Americans, we easily bought it.
Everyone gets a chance in America.
But are these attacks a sign of things to come? Michel Houellebecq’s book, “Submission” is a cutting edge, mid 21st century prediction of a futuristic, apocalyptic, and heavily Muslim influenced France. The France of today does allow for this scenario to occur.
As Potneckers we must ask ourselves, is this a natural occurrence that will be held within the borders of Northern Paris? Of, even France? Or, can we expect this to happen in London in 20-30 years? In Michigan in 40-50 years? In Potneck in 100 years?
Is this just a passing religious murder phase that is centrally located in only one major area of concern in the world? Is this now a global concern? Is it war? Potneckers are some of the smartest people I know. What do you, Potneckers, think?
Is a purge coming? And, if a purge is coming, it remains to be seen, doesn’t it, just who is to be purged? It also remains to be seen whether it takes 1 year to finish the purge or 100 years. The time table will be indicative of who the victor will be.
Can there be a different solution? Can a “peace” be found where the Nation of Islam and Muslims can accept being intellectually challenged by their fellow humans on the basis of religion? This is what all other religious beliefs are expected to do.
Can Muslims, if, indeed, it is the Muslim ideology that is perpetuating these crimes, be expected to be tolerant of all attacks against them whether they be ideological, intellectual, or satirical? There is no middle ground in the protection of free speech.
Is this another 9/11, Sandy Hoax false flag? The fact that we don’t know, for sure, is very upsetting.
This is where we are.
For whatever reason, Parisians are being purged right now.
Who is at fault and what shall we do?
PNN is Charlie Hebdo.
Bubble reads, “Must veil Charlie Hebdo!” PNN understands the picture to be depictions of The Pope, The Prophet Muhammad, and some representation of a Jewish person. Charlie Hebdo is described as a weekly French satirical publication, founded in 1969, that satires everything in France from Charles de Gaulle and politics to religion of all types. Charlie Hebdo’s editor and graphic artist director were viciously assassinated yesterday along with 10 others, including two unarmed policemen.
This is a spoof of the film The Untouchables 2. The bubble reads, “Must Not Mock” and is attributed to both a cartoon depicted as the Prophet Muhammad and the common Charlie Hebdo rendition of a Jewish person. These Jewish representations depicted by Charlie Hebdo seem to be a reflection of orthodox Jewish beliefs. Potneck News encourages all Potneckers to respond with their thoughts on these cartoons. Are they “okay” or are they “off limits”?
This Prophet Muhammad says, “100 lashes if you are not dying of laughter.”
This is what got 12 people killed in France yesterday. Seems innocent, enough, to PNN.
Stephane Charbonnier, Editor of Charlie Hebdo gave his life for the rights of free speech. He is famous for saying in 2012, “I would rather die standing than live on my knees.”
The following is the, “Mother of all Prophet Muhammad cartoons”.
Is this free speech or is it poor taste?
Does it really matter?
What kind of insecurity fears this freedom?
PNN doesn’t fear this. Do you?
At last report, no one will kill or threaten to kill you for reproducing the pictures below. (Click on the images for clarity.)
Are we at a crossroads? Will this war come to Potneck?
The Powers That Be (Part 1)
But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.
Thomas Opson was a mean child. Even the dogs shied away from him. When he was only 8 years old, to hear his saintly mama tell it, whenever Thomas came near, the dogs would tuck their tails and run for the safety of the dark underside of the porch. They did this by instinct. When he was 10 and just learning how to snap a well oiled, hard leather whip into submission, the horses and cattle scattered to the sound of its report. They knew better than to wait for the sting of the well-targeted rawhide strap. The poor cats weren’t so lucky. Thomas Opson didn’t like cats. He practiced his whip snapping technique on their ears and their noses. There was always, at least, one old one-eyed cat living down at the stable on the Opson farm. They learned very quickly not to spend too much time at the main house. As they got older, those wiser porch dogs didn’t seem to care much for the biscuit or hard jerky that their 12-year-old master might hold in his hand. They knew it would always be delivered with a swift kick to their ribs. After that, they couldn’t eat it anyway. This was the way the animals and the dogs acted around young Thomas Opson. Even in his early ages, they knew to stay away from him.
The 14-year-old Opson knew that Cardinals mated for life because his mama told him so. It was his reasoning for killing them. He would take the Springfield Flintlock musket that his daddy brought home from the War of 1812 and kill any buff brown Cardinal that came within his sight. He knew the beautiful buff brown birds were the female of the species so he singled them out, by color, and he took their lives. He hunted for them at the first sight of the majestic Red Bird. It was his way. There was no relevant reason for it other than pure evil. His mama told him that she believed the bright red male Cardinal with the black mask and the black throat to be the most beautiful creature on Earth. She was certain that Cardinals were signals of glad tidings that were to be sent from God. Whenever she saw one of them it reminded her to pause in her daily routine and give thanks to the Lord for the blessings in her life.
Thomas Opson thought this was a waste of time and ridiculed his mama for it behind her back. He believed the plain old brown birds to be inferior. They weren’t as worthy of life as the wicked and strangely magnificent Red Bird, the beautiful bird with the black mask and the black throat. Thomas thought the buff brown impostors of real Cardinals should be thinned out. He thought no one would miss them since they weren’t the pretty ones. Not many could even tell they were Cardinals, he reasoned. He rejoiced in watching the solitary male Red Bird suffering for the loss of his mate. Thomas Opson enjoyed having the power over life and death.
He had to hide his Cardinal killings from his mother, of course, and she had no idea why the beautiful birds stopped visiting and stopped bringing God’s glad tidings to the Opson farm.
His mama knew and understood that Thomas was a demon seed. She knew it wasn’t right for children to act this way. All his life she tried to teach him better, but it didn’t take. She still loved her boy. She was his mama, after all. She had hopes that the young man would grow up to be like the Major. Or, at least, her image of the Major.
Anna Opson helped establish the Church of the Lord’s Faith on Shepherd Hollow Road in 1836. This Church became well known in the community for its sweet spirit and its merciful ways. In her whole, young life Anna Opson never lost faith in her God or in her son. She died in 1845 from the fever and whatever little moral restraint that she was able to keep on her boy died along with her.
Even with his mother’s saintly encouragement to do so, Thomas Randolph Opson never cared for the company of another human being. He preferred to be alone. He grew to be a raging bull, a wild boar, and he ran straight towards his desires. If he saw trappings in front of him that he wished to have, he cared little for the concerns or for the safety of those who stood between him and that infatuation.
He never put himself in harm’s way or in any kind of jeopardy. He saved that for those around him. Self-preservation was his loftiest goal. Pity the unfortunate looked down upon souls who found themselves left in the extended company of his malignant spirit. Their chances for future prosperity, sometimes even their chances for present survival, were evilly reduced with each minute they spent with him.
Master Opson was the seed of Major Beauregard Thomas Opson, a merciless military leader who found uncommon favor serving with Old Hickory himself, Andy Jackson. Major Opson was one of General Jackson’s most trusted Officers and served with him during the Creek Wars and all the way through to the final Battle of New Orleans.
It was Major Beauregard T. Opson that oversaw the Court Martial and hostilities against Jackson’s own men in their mutiny of December 1813. The men, volunteers from Tennessee, felt that their one year enlistment periods should be counted from the time that they left their families and their homes in Tennessee. Old Hickory felt that their enlistment times should only be counted from when they were actually in conflict. By the use of summary Court Martial, imprisonment, and even execution by firing squads, Major B. T. Opson whittled those Tennessee volunteer mutineers out of Andy Jackson’s army. By the time new recruits arrived he had trimmed Old Hickory’s branches down to a scant 103 men.
B. T. Opson was like a mule with blinders on. He didn’t think, he just acted. He was stubborn and mean and you could whip him to death before he would move on a position. For that reason, Old Hickory liked him.
The old Major took care of his seed, Thomas. He was the apple of his eye. He delighted in the fact that the young Opson could handle a Flintlock Musket. He knew what 50 of those trained muskets could do. He had seen it in the Creek Wars. He thought it was funny that the boy could snap the tail of a dog with his whip. The elder Opson used dogs only for hunting, not companionship. He didn’t, however, like Thomas whipping the cows. He said it made their milk sour.
Thomas Opson had no real friends at school.
“Wrestle Opson, Lewis,” King Gatlin promoted one day in the schoolyard. He and the other school children were amazed at the strength, quickness, and the mobility of the new student, Lewis Wayne. Lewis was the son of new settlers into the County. His daddy was a horse trader and a good one, at that, and a blacksmith, too, from Virginia.
“Come on, Thomas. Stand up to him. Show him what Stewart County is made of. Show him your courage,” they all demanded. Unfortunately, 16-year-old Thomas Opson had no real courage. He was never forced to have it. Instead, he showed them his character.
“All right, I’ll wrestle him,” Opson agreed. Up until that day, Thomas Opson won nearly all of his wrestling challenges at school or in Town. He was champion wrestler of the County picnics by the River. Even the boys that could beat him, wouldn’t.
King Gatlin was one of them. He had beaten Thomas Opson once before at wrestling and he learned his lesson. It didn’t cost him anything that day but a month later, when it came time for Opson to take delivery of a new colt from Gatlin, Thomas declined. He had no room for it, he said. Gatlin had to send the colt to Clarksville to sell it and he lost his profit. King Gatlin knew that beating down Thomas Opson in public would cost you later. He also knew that Lewis Wayne was unaware of this truth. That’s why he requested the Opson/Wayne wrestling match. Gatlin wanted to see Opson beaten and he thought Lewis would be too naive not to do it.
Thomas Opson noticed Jewel Crow standing off to the side of the crowd of students. She was paying close attention to the fair-haired and strikingly handsome Lewis Wayne. Opson moved closer to be by her side, so as to speak with her. He became more than a little jealous and was resentful that she continued to show more interest in the strapping new settler than she did in him. Opson spoke to her, but she only casually listened. He told her that he would better the outsider in no time at all and give him a proper Stewart County welcome. He told Jewel that after the match he would like to speak with her again and again, she only remotely heard what he had to say. Jewel Crow was not impressed with Thomas Opson.
When the wrestling match started the two boys circled one another. Opson seemed to be feigning moves or pretending to dive at his opponent. Lewis Wayne watched Opson, studied him, and didn’t think any of his threats were serious. Opson charged Lewis and grabbed him around the waist and in the privates squeezing very hard in an attempt to pick him up and throw him down. Lewis reached up under both of Thomas’ arms with his own and bent them backward, up behind him as he let his weight settle on Opson. He rode him down hard onto the ground. This all happened in the first minute of fighting. It also happened in a way that Opson’s face was the first thing that hit the ground and when he came up his nose was bloodied and broken. The match was over. The students were speechless. They all knew better than to congratulate Lewis Wayne on a smart victory. Rather, they asked Thomas Opson if he were all right and tended to his spilled blood and his fractured pride. King Gatlin grinned with satisfaction.
Lewis Wayne didn’t seem to care that no one embraced his moment. Jewel Crow had his attention and, as far as he was concerned, Thomas Opson was just another pretend to be wrestler . Jewel and Lewis smiled and talked and moved on with their day as if nothing spectacular had happened. Other than their meeting, nothing had.
Thomas Opson felt different. He allowed that it was just dumb luck the way that they both fell on his head. He wanted a rematch and soon, he claimed. Not today, though because his arms still ached from being bent out of shape and his nose hurt, too.
A week later Opson invited Lewis Wayne over to his farm to talk horse trading. Lewis was intrigued that Thomas’ daddy had served with Old Hickory. He jumped at the chance to have the opportunity to speak with the old Major. The Major was impressed with the young lad’s knowledge of military history. He declared that Lewis understood things about the military that even some of his own junior Officers didn’t know. He told Lewis that he thought he would make a fine military officer if he ever chose to be one. He invited him back to his farm at any time.
Late that night after all had gone to bed, Thomas Opson challenged Lewis Wayne to another test of skill.
“We’ll swim the Cumberland River tonight, Lewis. Then, tomorrow we’ll race our best horses and if we are still tied after all of that we’ll wrestle again to determine who is the better man.”
“Why swim the River at night, Thomas? Isn’t that dangerous?” Lewis knew it had to be.
“It’s not dangerous unless you get caught up in flood stumps or log debris. Those debris piles can drag you down that river forever if you get hung up on them, but we’ll look out for that. Let’s go. You scared?” Opson coaxed.
“I’m not scared, but I’ll have to look it over first, Thomas, before I agree to swim it. As far as horse racing tomorrow goes, I won’t be able to do that. I’m going over to Jewel Crow’s house to meet her family.”
Thomas Opson grit his teeth in disgust under his breath.
Steady rains had fallen in Stewart County for two days and Opson knew that debris would be up in the River because of it. He guided Lewis Wayne to a spot on the bank where the boys all understood that it was the safest, shortest way to cross.
“Now, here is how it works, Lewis,” Opson explained. “This River is no big feat to swim, so long as nothing happens. Don’t let yourself get snake bit, watch out for a tree branch or log debris, and swim for your mark. Pick out a landing spot down the river and hit it. We’ll swim over easy to get a feel for the flow of the current, walk back up, and race back across. I hope you brought your fish flippers.”
“Agreed, Thomas,” the young Wayne acknowledged. “This River is a small challenge. We’ll swim across for a trial run and race back.”
Thomas Opson only smiled.
Stacking their clothing in a clearing under a tree, the boys scanned the river’s surface looking for any piles of floating debris that could be riding in the current and racing in the channel towards them. Full grown cattle had been known to get caught up in that jam of logs, driftwood, and riverbank brush and they had been drowned and drug for miles downstream before being let loose. Swimming the Cumberland River at any time was a dangerous prospect. Swimming it at night was a fool’s endeavor. That’s why these were boys and not yet men. They felt ten feet tall all the time.
Once the boys were satisfied that the river was clear they dove in and swam for the channel. Thomas Opson knew the Cumberland. He made damn sure that nothing lurked between him and the other side of it. Quickly, they were away from the bank and into the current. Lewis knifed naturally through Adam’s Ale with a spirited dive and he came up stroking. Opson was already half a body’s length behind before they ever reached the faster current. Once in the channel, Lewis stroked the water with power and pulled himself mightily against the river. He easily overcame it’s flow and aimed for his mark. Opson fell further behind and it was everything he could do just to stay at Wayne’s feet. He had swum this river a dozen times, but he had never before been asked to swim it this fast. He looked up to see if Wayne was paying attention to what was ahead of him in the River and he was. Opson was discouraged to know that Wayne was looking around and this wasn’t his fastest speed, after all, just a warm up, as he said. They were getting closer to the edge of the channel and Lewis would soon be gliding to the river’s bank. In just a few more strokes, Opson would be too far behind to catch up. The end was within sight and within reach. Thomas gave one last push. It took every bit of strength that he had to catch the efficient, fish flipping feet of Lewis Wayne. He grabbed Wayne’s feet to stop him just as they were out of the channel. It was only then that he felt the power of his strokes. Lewis Wayne pulled Thomas Opson through the water with him for several feet with just his arms and Opson felt as though he were still in the channel. They stopped swimming and began treading water.
“What did you do that for, Opson? This is only a trial run. We weren’t swimming our fastest,” Wayne said. He was hardly out of breath.
“I thought I saw a log jam.” Opson was taking a breath halfway through each sentence.
“I thought I saw a flood stump,” take a breath, “Sticking up out of the water,” take another. “They’ll kill you, boy”. Opson took a deep breath and headed for the bank. He was too tired to be treading water all night.
The boys reached the east bank of the Cumberland River and Lewis Wayne sprang easily upon it. Opson followed, struggled up, and sat down on the grass. Laying down or collapsing on it and being out of breath would be too telling of his desperation. “We’ll walk up about a quarter mile and swim back across for real,” Opson offered. “I hope that wasn’t all you’ve got, Wayne.”
“I might surprise you, Thomas,” Lewis Wayne answered.
The only surprise coming that night was from Thomas Opson. As the boys reached the starting point, Opson looked way up the River. He spied a sizable log jam coming down the channel, but it was more than a thousand feet away. If he left now, Lewis Wayne would be across the river and dry by the time that debris pile got here. It was huge, distinct, and easily recognized by a trained eye. It was coming, hard and slow, but it would take a good four to five minutes to get down the river to where they were. Three or four crooked branches could already be seen sticking out of it through the surface of the water and it carried brush debris with it. It was a good one. It was still a very long way away, but Opson knew exactly where it was and exactly how long it would take to get there.
“Look right out there, Wayne,” Thomas coached. “I see nothing right in there coming our way.”
Opson didn’t point a half-mile upstream to the channel-dividing pile of debris that was barreling down the River. It was just outside of the untrained eye’s sight. Lewis Wayne didn’t see it. He didn’t know to look that far back.
“Are you really going to Jewel Crow’s house tomorrow?” Opson distracted Lewis as he hoped for a different answer. “To meet her family? I heard her daddy was a big, strong tree-cutting man. I heard he didn’t like boys coming around to see his daughter. You sure you want to do that?”
“You can rest assured, I am. Jewel said her daddy was a good, hard working man. She said he just acted mean to scare the morons away. Jewel is a smart girl and she comes from a smart family. If she is sweet on me I’d be a fool to look the other way. A man doesn’t want to waste an invitation like that. They don’t come along too often, Thomas.” Lewis Wayne answered, honestly.
“Are you a man, Lewis?” Opson inquired.
“We’ll find that out on the other side of the River, Thomas. You ready?”
Thomas Opson had calculated that the log jam and debris pile was just about within range to sweep any channel swimming boy to a watery grave.
“Let me go up on that rock and look one more time, Wayne, just to be sure that it is clear.” Thomas Opson crawled a few feet up the bank to a vantage point where he could calculate how far away that log jam killer was.
“Just looking, Lewis. A little further. Almost. Hold on. I’m seeing nothing. Are you ready? Now, Wayne!” Opson ran toward the River and tagged Lewis Wayne on the shoulder as he raced by. He dove first and fast into the water.
Lewis Wayne was ready but not for Opson to have a head start. He bolted, dove, and swam and kicked his feet the fastest he had ever kicked in his life to catch up with Opson. He came up out of the water like a dolphin and shot forward like a shark toward the channel. His powerful arm strokes were slicing the water and catapulting him forward. He caught and passed Opson just as they reached the channel. He didn’t notice that Thomas had stopped swimming before going into it. Opson was treading water and backing away from the faster current as Wayne continued to swim like he was five feet behind. Lewis Wayne was neglecting to look at what might lay ahead of him in the River, he was thinking more about winning the race. He made swift headway and Opson thought, for a minute, that this superior swimmer was going to get out of the channel ahead of his death trap. He didn’t make it, though. When Lewis Wayne finally thought to look up the first thing he saw was that mighty debris pile right on top of him. He heard it first. It cut through the River like a loaded, flat bottom boat. The next thing he saw was Thomas Opson one hundred feet back behind him and well out of the channel, watching what was happening. Lewis Wayne made one, last-ditch try to outswim the pile by going straight down river and angling out the side, but it was too late. It was too close to him. A large forward branch snagged his legs and took him, at current speed, sideways down the river. Opson could see Wayne struggling at first against the brush and the branch to break free, but the water against him was too strong. He went under and came back up three times before that log turned and the branch drug him down for the final reckoning. He wanted to scream each of the times he came up, but there was no time for that. Breaths were too precious to be wasted on screams. Lewis Wayne was taking the final breaths of his young life and Thomas Opson was treading water and thinking up a story to tell everyone about why he and Wayne were swimming in the Cumberland River at night.
The story worked. Lewis Wayne’s body was never found and Thomas Opson made sure he was there to console a grieving Jewel Crow. A month later, Lewis Wayne’s mother and father moved their stock and their talents back to Virginia. Their lost son was another victim of the County.
At 17, Thomas Opson began courting Miss Olive Retterree-Smith. She was a Kentucky-bred girl and an accomplished equestrian. Miss Olive was refined and she was a brilliant woman. She finished all of her school books by the age of 12 and began teaching the teacher. After spending four years at boarding school in Lexington, Kentucky Olive was coming to Stewart County to look after her Aunt Naomi Retterree. Miss Retterree was a rich widow woman who was old with the shakes and Olive was tasked by her father to see to her needs. Olive’s parents allowed that when Olive’s mother’s sister passed, Olive would be bestowed with her inheritance. They wished for her to make her Aunt’s last days as peaceful as possible.
Miss Naomi didn’t like or trust Thomas Opson. Something about his eyes, she said. They just didn’t sit right. Naomi thought Miss Olive was a perfectly independent woman with a great chance to make a difference in this world and Miss Naomi didn’t want to see her give that chance up on some scoundrel from Stewart County. She might have the shakes in her old days, but she still remembered how she and her husband had fought like Christians against the lions for everything they owned in this County. She didn’t trust anybody.
Opson was a tall, handsome, dark-haired, slender man with charming eyes. He had money and he had security. That meant a lot in the hard, pioneer life of Stewart County. His land was clean. His trails were easily traveled, his home was inviting, and he kept it that way.
He stayed on his best behavior and swooned Miss Olive for two years. Opson’s daddy died during this time and although Miss Olive was a little leery of some of his moods she thought she saw a little compassion in her beau’s soul at his father’s bereavement. It caused her to hang on a little longer to give him a good chance, but her hope was short lived.
Opson inherited from his father a farm, the stock, and gold and silver, all told, worth about $25,000. It was a tidy sum of money and about equal to what Miss Retterree’s future bequeathal to Miss Olive would be.
But Thomas Opson, being who he was, couldn’t be satisfied with all of that. Even with Miss Olive, in waiting, as his perfect mate for life, he balked and put her off.
Opson took his inheritance and began trading in horseflesh and human flesh and he became very good at buying and selling the both of them. He knew a good horse when he saw it as well as a good slave. He always got what he wanted and he kept the best of both for his own personal pleasure. The horses he kept were high-spirited, the men he bought were strong and healthy, and the women were sometimes mulatto.
Thomas Opson bought an august, noble, distinctively wild black stallion once at the sales. It was a magnificent animal. It was the kind of trophy that Thomas Opson very much liked to own, but it was still, very much, unbroken. It had already thrown him off once and even kicked at him in the stockyards but it was a marvelous specimen and Opson won him against King Gatlin’s bidding for a high dollar price. He had the animal delivered to his home with strict instructions for everyone to stay away from him. He was much too dangerous, Opson warned, for anyone to try to bridle or break without his direction.
When he got home that afternoon he was amazed to see Miss Olive longeing the horse in a large circle. In only a few hours Miss Olive had already begun to gain the horse’s confidence and respect. Opson was decidedly flustered but, at first, he held his tongue.
“We’re sorry, Mr. Thomas,” said Amos Green, as he came running up to Thomas Opson’s horse. Amos was an old stock slave that was originally bought and owned by Mr. Beauregard. “We told her you said for everybody to stay away from that mean horse, just like you said, but she said she could speak to the horse. She went right up to him, Mr. Thomas. It was like nothing you ever seen. We didn’t know what to do. We just backed off. She’s been whispering in that horses ear the likes you ain’t never seen. I ain’t never seen nothing like it.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Thomas,” Amos behaved.
Thomas Opson dismounted his horse and hopped over the fence nearly running to take the longe rope out of Miss Olive’s hands.
“What in the devil’s name are you doing, Olive?” Opson demanded as he jerked the rope from Olive and put himself between the horse and the horsewoman.
The horse immediately bolted and the rope burned out of Opson’s hand. It started bucking and stomping and remembered it’s former attitude. It took four slaves and two healthy nags to settle it back down.
“I was doing fine before you came in here, Thomas. What is wrong with you?” Olive was past understanding.
“This corral is no place for a woman, Olive. You should be back up in that house tending to women’s chores.”
“Should I now?” Miss Olive asked.
Olive walked slowly out of the corral and past the stable up towards the Opson house. She walked as if she had a lot on her mind. She stopped twice along the path and turned back, looking down on the corral. She acted as if she needed to come back and speak again to her gentleman friend but the horse was aggravated and he was occupied. She paused, watching and thinking to herself. Then, she resumed her march up the hill.
A storm was coming in quick from the north and Thomas asked Miss Olive to stay the night. He was sorry for snapping at her, he said. He was just very worried about her. He knew what that horse was capable of and he didn’t even notice that she had taught it to trot. He was very sorry, he almost cried. He was only thinking of her. Like now, he said. He told her that the storm was too severe to be heading down the trail by horse or wagon. He insisted she stay the night. Miss Olive wanted to believe him. She had thought that she saw a glimmer of hope in his soul when his father died. She knew she had left Miss Naomi in good hands with two house women and they would look well after her until she could return. Thomas would send Amos Green out into the storm, he assured, to tell the house ladies that Miss Olive would not be returning until the morrow.
After supper and a taste of liquor, Thomas tried something he had never done before with Miss Olive. He kissed her good night, of course. He had done that many times. But tonight he took it one step further. His amorous advances in the drawing room surprised Miss Olive. She wasn’t raised that way. She almost lost her breath when he attempted to touch her in her secret places.
“Mr. Opson,” she blurted out. “What are you doing? You can’t put your hands on me there! I am a Christian woman. We are not married yet, and I won’t be soiled as a single woman. We have not been properly betrothed. What are you thinking?”
“Miss Olive,” Opson pleaded. We are to be married, aren’t we? It is only a formality now. Will you deny your future husband a simple pleasure?”
“It may be simple to you, Mr. Opson, but it is my dignity and it is all I have. How dare you think that you could trespass upon me like that. And after what I saw of you today, we may not ever get married. Please leave this room, Mr. Opson, or I will be forced to leave this property tonight. The storm has passed and I am not afraid of the dark.” Miss Olive Retterree-Smith was an independent woman.
“I’ll leave.” Opson stomped from the room.
Olive Retterree-Smith readied herself for bed but could not sleep. She tossed in her covers and turned thinking whether, or not, she was making the right decisions about her future. Maybe she should wait a time longer. Maybe her Aunt Naomi was right and Thomas Opson was not the man for her. She decided, after a while, to get back out of her bed and get dressed. She kept thinking of the wild stallion and how tame he was, after all. She wanted to whisper again in his ear tonight. She wanted to calm him like she did earlier. She put on her riding boots and walked back down to the stables.
The horse was tired from the day and barely asleep so she was quiet as she eased up around him. He awoke and remembered her and stayed calm even with her near to him. She whispered in his ear and he slowly unlocked his legs and began to stir about. This was a good horse, she thought to herself. He will make a fine stallion.
She heard some grunting and moaning coming from the other side of the stable and she couldn’t imagine what it was. She left the spirited horse’s side to investigate the sounds that she did not understand.
To her horror, she found her future husband locked in carnal abuse with the young female mulatto house slave that he had only recently purchased. He was grunting like a wild animal as he attacked her from behind and she seemed to moan in both pain and ecstasy, not understanding which her master desired.
“Thomas Opson!” Miss Olive screamed.
“Oh, shat. Shat, shat, shat,” Thomas repeated as Miss Olive retreated back towards the opposite stall.
“What are you doing, Thomas? What are you thinking?” she demanded.
“Olive, Olive wait,” Thomas pleaded as he fell over a bucket. “She means nothing to me. She is just a place for my vitality to play out. I’m a young man, Olive. I tried to approach you earlier, but you scorned me away. You turned me away. I don’t know any different. What was I supposed to do?” Opson begged as he pulled his trousers up.
“What were you supposed to do?” Miss Olive responded. You are supposed to wait. You are not supposed to come down here and have your way with a poor little slave girl. How old is she? 15? How old are you, girl?” Miss Olive was repulsed.
“Almost 15,” the young brown mulatto slave answered.
“I suspected you weren’t the man you let on to be, Thomas Opson. You are so handsome and you act so clean on the outside but on the inside you are rotten to the core. The trails of your farm are well trimmed, but your woods are dirty. Your smile is so beguiling, so deceiving, and a simple girl is easily enticed into your lair. I won’t lower my standards to you, Thomas Opson. I will not live my life with a tyrant such as the likes of you. You are nothing more than a pig.” Olive Retterree-Smith was not realizing that as she so valiantly delivered her truths, like arrows, straight into the heart of Thomas Opson, she had also backed up into the narrow stall with the now agitated stallion. The beast no longer understood that she was still his friend.
Thomas Opson flew into a rage. He charged at Miss Olive, yelling and screaming as he did. She backed even further into the corner of the wild horse’s space and the steed, at once, became one thousand moving pounds of immediate danger. It’s outbursts of fury were amplified and intensified with the howling of Thomas Opson. Opson spit and cussed with a vein-popping eruption that drove the animal further into its panic. He paused to momentarily survey the situation he found himself in and took a deep breath. He seemed to relish the rampage. At that moment, he could have stopped. In that split second, he could have stopped. Instead, he beat on the horse’s head with a whip handle and a bridle bit and waving his arms he spooked the pony up into a frenzy. The fired up stallion began bucking in the stall. It began neighing and whinnying and kicking, breaking, and busting down the boards of its containment.
Miss Olive Retterree-Smith was lost in the bucks and the stomps and the kicks of the wild beast and only after Thomas Opson calmed down and only after the stallion had calmed down did anyone see her lying under the horse with her head stomped in and blood running from her mouth, her eyes, and her ears. She was gone. She had been killed, instantly, and left with a half moon crease the size of a horseshoe in the side of her head.
When he realized that Olive was dead, Thomas Opson immediately pulled his revolver from his holster and fired one shot point blank into the horse’s head, killing it. He was lucky the animal didn’t fall on Miss Olive’s poor body as it slammed to the ground. He called the young mulatto slave over to the stall and asked her to check to be sure that the horse was dead. She did. It was dead and she confirmed it. Opson then put one shot into her heart, ensuring that no witnesses would be left alive to tell the real story.
Slaves came running to the stables after hearing the shots and the lone survivor told the tale. The wild horse became hostile, he reported, just as he said it would. He kicked the lovely Miss Olive in the head, just as he had warned her it might do, and it killed her. In his anger and rage he aimed to shoot the animal dead but it seemed to charge at him and his aim was misdirected and he shot and killed the young slave girl by accident. Finally, he swore, he placed a well-aimed bullet into the animal’s brain.
No one questioned Opson’s account of the accident. The young mulatto slave was buried in the negro cemetery and Miss Olive Retterree-Smith’s body was returned to her home in Kentucky. The horse was fed to the slaves and the pigs.
It was not long after this that Howard Claiborne found favor with Thomas Opson. It was not long after that when Thomas Opson was made Constable of Stewart County.
End of Chapter 6 (Part 1)
The way of peace they know not; and there is no judgment in their goings: they have made them crooked paths: whosoever goeth therein shall not know peace.
In the summer of 1856 the Great Western Furnace in Stewart County Tennessee was a prosperous and successful operation forging high-quality pig iron that was in great demand all the way from St. Louis to New Orleans. Due to Luke Elam’s skillful and well-organized management of the Great Western he and his brother Brandon were becoming two of the most powerful landowners in Stewart County. Nearly every month, it seemed, they were using the money they earned from the Great Western to buy up more bottom land, more timber, and more property than some in the Town cared to see.
This good fortune spread to everyone at the Great Western. From the ownership group, all the way down to the newest hires when the work week ended everyone went home with smiles on their faces and money in their pockets. Black men and their families were seen more often in Town and they had hard cash to spend. At first, many of the local store owners refused to trade with the negroes but they soon realized that Hopkinsville, Kentucky could provide the same products at a better price if the local merchants turned them away. Many black Stewart Countians found it more advantageous and more delightful to make that trip to “Hoptown” once every two or three weeks rather than put up with the bias in Town. It didn’t take long for the shop owners of Dover to begin to feel the emptiness in their pocketbooks and they quickly put the word out that “black” money would be accepted, after all, in their businesses. They did not, however, lower their prices to compete with the Hoptown stores. After all, there wasn’t any other competition, locally, forcing them to do so and that trip to Hoptown and back was several hours long by wagon.
The more the Great Western flexed its muscle, the more the men in power in Dover felt their control slipping away. Unfortunately, these power hungry men of the old way took this as a sign to tighten their grip even harder.
Ignorant power, brute force. It beat down the Indian. It will beat down the slave. This was their counting. They needed to push the men harder, they calculated, as that was their shortcoming. Making the slaves smarter and concurrently more productive by pushing them harder was the way, they figured, that the Great Western could be bettered.
Many were the days of work that Luke and Hilton guided their mule teams and wagon loads of laborers through the predawn hours of Dover only to become eyewitnesses to freshly whipped men hanging in locked stocks on the Town Square. It was a savage and barbaric way to increase pig iron production and a harsh and crude approach to making examples of runaway slaves. It was a poorly bred fool’s means to a bloody end and it was applied regularly with a jaundiced and calloused eye. A decent, working man’s wage to those beaten down men was inconsequential and the least of their worries. They were trained to believe that not being whipped was far better than receiving a payday of any kind and running away from your master could bring you an unspeakable torture, even death, at the hands of an earthbound devil.
These men and boys were our neighbors, our friends. It was hard to believe that we all lived in the same world and much less, the same Town. On one especially sad morning as the wagons passed through Dover, Constable Thomas Opson was still whipping a poor boy who had become unconscious as he was chained to the stock. Opson, drunk with whiskey and unbridled power, continued to lash at the young man. Luke Elam could stand it no more. He jumped from his wagon and grabbed Opson’s arm before he was able to crack another snap of his whip on the helpless boy.
“You’re killing him, Opson!” He yelled as he held back his arm. “This is enough! He is half dead and dying. Have you no mercy?”
Opson was surprised Luke had come upon him so quick. He jerked his arm away and laughed. “Mercy? These wild dogs deserve no mercy, Elam. He’s an escaped slave that was caught.” He pointed his bloody whip in Luke’s face. “He gets 100 lashes at the post on the Committee’s order and if you know what is good for you, Elam, you will not obstruct me again or I will have you in that stock. I’ll enjoy striping your backside.” Several whiskey drinking Committee of Safety (COS) riders gathered around Thomas Opson and provided him with all the courage he needed to make these threats.
Hilton had moved up behind Luke and pulled him away. “Come on, Mr. Luke. You can’t help that boy today. He is in God’s hands now. Let’s move on through this town with mean eyes.”
“Listen to your boy, Elam,” Opson advised. “Or that Furnace of yours will be without its Founder for awhile.” He snapped his whip at Luke’s feet, but Luke Elam did not flinch.
Opson blinked in disbelief and furled his brows in wonder as he struggled to understand just why his power or how his threats put no fear into the elder Elam.
Luke and Hilton moved back toward their mule teams.
The men in the wagons were silent and many prayed in whispers to God as the cracking whip resumed and made fresh cuts into the listless body of the young negro trapped in the devil’s stocks. Opson seemed to enjoy the spectacle he made by whipping the boy. Every time he wound his arm back and flung the well-aimed tip of the weapon toward his victim he screamed, “Heeeyaaaaa!”
The men of the Great Western later learned that the boy was, in fact, dead. It was a town gone mad. Life meant nothing to those in power. They covered up their sins as if nothing had ever happened. They continued on their paths as if they would never be judged for their dastardly deeds. There was no earthly power to stand against them. They controlled the law, they controlled the Court, and they controlled the night and the day. Who would question Howard Claiborne and his “family”? They were located in every corner of the County and beholding only to him. Who was strong enough to come against his law?
Yet, amongst it all the men at the Great Western had a great hope. They had a working hope that was covered with the promise of freedom. The men of every other Furnace in the County and in other Counties like Dickson, to the south of Dover, could only muster a faint, silent hope. Even so, sadly, theirs was a hope that was drenched in misery and despair. Outside of Town and far away from the Committee of Safety’s sight, Luke Elam stopped the wagons and the men prayed together, out loud, for the poor boy’s soul.
With every passing month of it’s existence, the ironmasters from the other Furnaces felt more and more greed, jealousy, and animosity toward the Great Western for its profitable and sustained growth. The high quality and the huge quantity of pig iron that was coming from the “Elam and Jacobs” Furnace could be matched nowhere else in the County or, for that matter, the Country. Month after month, season after season, it outsold all of it’s competitors at the wharf.
“Top dollar, Great Western!” That was the word that always came back from the River Boat Landing.
Time, and time again, the Iron Masters tried to lure Mr. Luke away from the Great Western. They tried to buy him out. They wanted to hire him for themselves, but he would never accept their offers and he would never sell himself out to their lower standards. They didn’t really want Mr. Luke to improve their iron production and, after all, they didn’t really want him to resurrect their slaves, either. They just wanted to be able to put their finger on him. They only needed to slow the Great Western down. Raising their own standards was never in the equation. But Luke Elam was smarter than that.
These iron masters despised the fact that their free workers, white and black, would often take lesser jobs as pick and ax men just to have the opportunity to work the Great Western. These confederate pig iron workers, with their learned experience, made the Great Western an even stronger organization. While the other Furnaces still made money, as pig iron was a very lucrative business, their owners felt that it wasn’t enough. They wanted the success that Luke Elam had. They wanted to be number one again like they were when there was no Great Western. Their problem was that they just weren’t willing to show the kindness and the generosity needed to get that status back. It wasn’t their way. Their way was the old way, the Cross Elam way of ignorant power and brute force. Because of this they would never be able to reach the pinnacle of success that the Great Western enjoyed. They never really had it, to begin with. Try as they all did to hold on to their power, they knew that their authority was slipping further and further away from them. With each and every day, the Great Western forged ahead. The powers that shouldn’t be increased their measures to regain control at any cost.
All of the money that the men of color earned at the Great Western, the County tried to take it away. The County Court, upon the instruction of Dover Furnace Iron Master Howard Claiborne, passed laws that required all freedmen to bond themselves. This bond was, in effect, a tax or a license that the County required of them to be “free”. The bond was so high, sometimes as much as a hundred dollars, that the men felt as though they would never be able to earn their freedoms.
Who would be the next in line to come and say, “I own a piece of you now.”
Many men, begrudgingly, did suffer to pay the blood money and bonded themselves to become free so they could have the right to stay and live in Stewart County. However, even this wasn’t pleasing to the Court. The Court obtusely reckoned that if the former slaves, who sought to be free, paid the County it’s required bond money they would be less likely to leave this, their little island of despair. Their plan was to ensure that the money the former slaves continued to earn as free men would be kept between the rivers and inside their little hell hole. But not enough freedmen, to the County’s liking, made a bond with the Court. Once the men earned their freedom, more and more of them left Stewart County forever, never looking back. The Court worried that other slaves were escaping and leaving with them. This concern was not unfounded. There were hundreds, if not thousands of slaves working the iron furnaces and the sacred tobacco farms of Stewart County in 1856. People soon found, through the example of the Great Western, that there was another way, a better way of life. At the first opportunity, many of them packed up their belongings, sometimes in a single bag, and under the cover of night and immediate threat of a cruel and agonizing death they moved, quickly North, to the safety of Kentucky.
As a result of this ever-increasing migration, the Court attempted to make individual owners accountable for their slaves if they escaped. They passed laws requiring that a responsible white man, a sponsor, must co-sign any Freedman’s Bond. If that freedman left and took others with him the cosigners were held liable for the losses. A freedman that left and took his wife and two children with him could cost the cosigner upwards of two thousand dollars! This was payable to the County, of course, as a compensation to the other iron furnaces for lost production. Cosigners became very scarce. In a way, many freedmen felt that their hard earned money was no good, that they weren’t really free if they had to have a white man sign on with them for their bond. Other laws passed by the County Court ordered that freedmen could own no horses, no livestock, and no guns. This further infuriated them. They had worked very hard to earn their freedom. They bought land and invested in Stewart County hoping to stay here and now they were told that they could not own the animals required to manage their property. The County Court made it intolerable for them to stay and intolerable for them to leave.
Luke and Brandon Elam signed all of their freed men’s bonds but only a handful of other white men in the county would sign for their men. Those men who could not secure a bond, after they had worked so hard for and earned the money to buy back their freedom, were understandably agitated. The only thing left for them to do was to move away from Stewart County to a place where a bond was not required of them to live free. The closest place to begin a journey like that started just twelve miles away, in Kentucky.
If they bought their freedom they were free to move, the Court allowed, but if they stayed in Stewart County it would cost them bond money. Even if they had bond money they would have to find a co-signer to sponsor them. Even if they had a cosigner, they could not own livestock. On top of all this they were told that they could not move their families with them to other parts of the County. Their families were still slaves and were made to stay in the slave quarters of their masters. It made no difference to the County that these were the wives and the children of free men. The men’s families weren’t recognized as free. Their freedom cost money, too, the Court ruled. The Court allowed that only the free men who had paid for their singular freedom could move about the County untethered. Their children and their wives could not move with them as the Court ruled they were not free. It was easy to see why many of the men chose to leave by any means possible as soon as they could and even in the dead of the night. This is where the slaves began disappearing. This is where the Committee of Safety riders were employed to hunt them down and bring them back to the stocks of Dover.
As the summer of 1856 turned to fall tension filled the air in Stewart County. In September, the COS began stopping and holding the Great Western wagon train workers in Town. They said they needed to check each wagon for runaways. This usually delayed the Great Western’s production by about an hour for that day. In October, they began pulling accused runaways from the wagons and either Mr. Luke or the Iron Master had to come back to Dover later in the day to retrieve him. The slave was never a runaway and was always beaten before he was returned. This happened three times in November 1856. It was a fuse that was burning red hot. We saw it all lighting off right in front of us, but we couldn’t put it out. We had to live through it. We had to watch it burn.
Hilton bought his freedom sooner than he expected and was a bonded free man so we were allowed to move freely anywhere we desired as the Elam brothers encouraged it. We bought a farm as far up into Tennessee as we could to be away from the riders of Dover’s Committee of Safety. We lived only a couple of miles North of the Great Western and Hilton was able to come home every night. The Elams would never report us, Hilton’s family, as missing or runaway slaves so we were always able and never a danger to travel together. We chose to trade in Kentucky. People were nicer and it was a lot safer up there. They welcomed our money and us, equally. Samuel was 9 years old and Hilmon was just beginning to walk. We could have moved to Kentucky. It was only about seven miles away, but we didn’t. The road North was not as well traveled as others, but there were farms that dotted the landscape all along the way and we knew everyone on the path.
Besides, Hilton loved the Great Western. He made thirty dollars a month there and we had never seen or imagined that kind of money before. He used to say that somebody would have to beat him away from his Furnace with a stick before he would ever leave her. She was his second love and I accepted that.
We lived far away from Dover now. We no longer witnessed, first hand, the atrocities that were being committed against the runaways. Even more horrible stories were now told that women, and children alike, were being chained to the stocks and whipped. Dogs were set loose on runaways and they were viciously attacked to bring them down. Women were being raped by men on the sides of the road in the broad light of day. The Committee of Safety riders made no attempt to put a stop to these crimes. Sometimes, it was told, they were the culprits of the evil doings. We received these reports from the workers that continued to ride the ferry across the Cumberland and pass through the County Seat on the way to the Great Western. It was getting worse all the time. No one could blame anyone for trying to escape. There was no justice and there was no peace.
These bad times all started, I guess, with the success of the Great Western. Men were making such good money. By the fall of 1856 the men had two full years of work behind them and the sound money that came from it was burning a hole in their pockets. People were buying their freedom left and right and after that, they bought land and farms. Many men left Stewart County, but many stayed to continue to work and earn a solid living. Those that left usually left because they had families and they were able to get the means together to get their families away from here, all together. Those that stayed were usually single men who enjoyed the freedom of hard work and good money. Either way, all of these people offered hope to a thousand other slaves in the County.
There were nearly twenty furnaces in Stewart County in 1856 but only one Great Western. In a place where imaginary dreams were the only hope a person might have, whatever happened at the Great Western was retold a hundred times over and built upon with every telling. It was told that those black men who worked the Great Western were now free men living in the North of Stewart County and they owned their own land. If they owned five acres it was told that they owned a whole hunting valley or a whole fishing stream. If the freemen chose to leave Stewart County it was told that if they hadn’t loaded up two wagons full, with their belongings, then they weren’t ready, just yet, to leave. Money flowed like honey to the bees to anyone associated with the Great Western.
Stories of superior working conditions, even at a hot Iron Furnace, continued to creep back from the Great Western to all of those living in the dismal, dirt floor slave quarters of their masters. Throughout the County, “North, through Kentucky”, became a rallying cry for all the slaves. Anything that could be or would be said of the life up north was always better than the reality they understood in Stewart County. It was the dream of freedom that drove those men and women. It was the dream that they could be better than they were, that they could do better for themselves and for their families if they were only given the chance. With the Great Western, they had seen it. They knew it was real. Real freedom waited in Kentucky for all those brave enough to risk it. It may cost them their lives, but they reasoned death would be easier for them than the life they now lived. Even those men with little or no money, even those men with no shoes risked escaping. The Great Western was the way.
This is where Hilton got into trouble. He had no reason to leave Stewart County. He had his family with him, he owned a working farm with livestock that the Elams claimed they owned, and he made good money at the Great Western. But even though he had no reason to leave he sure did his best to help others get away. It became well known in other Furnaces that if you were trying to escape and you could make your way to Hilton Jacobs, the Keeper at the Great Western, you could make your way to freedom. We were already in the northern part of the County, almost to Kentucky, and Hilton knew the ways of those Committee of Safety Riders. He could point an accompanied man down ten different trails, all in the right direction, towards the safety of the North. There was a network of farms spread out up there like a patchwork quilt and Hilton knew, as did I, where the friendly farms were and where the farms were that should be passed by. I supported Hilton in helping these poor and desperate people. I always aided these runners, who’s only crime was a search for freedom, with a food basket and a bundle of clothes. Many was the night that a quiet tap was heard on our door from an exhausted man who had just swum across the Cumberland River or a frightened and scared young couple that had just escaped the sharp teeth of the hounds. They were all making their way, blindly, towards an unknown freedom. Most of the time all of the property that these people owned was on their backs. We had a plan for them. It was all laid out very carefully. We would ease them, feed them, and let them rest as we watched the roads and listened to the wind for the right time to go. Mose’s daddy would take them on foot safely up into Kentucky and make the first pass with them. Then, they would be escorted further under that same network of cover into Illinois and Ohio. They were passed off to the next guide all along the way until they felt safe. Until they felt safe, that was their only condition for settling.
After a while, we began receiving letters from way up North. Letters would come back from Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, and from just about everywhere that you could imagine. Even from as far away as New York, the letters came back to us. Most times, when Mose’s daddy handed a runaway off to the next guide in the line that guide had a return letter for him to bring back to us. Almost every one of them had two or three dollars inside thanking us for the clothes or the food that we shared with them. They were all signed, Cousin Beulah or Cousin Big Billy, or some such name so as not to arouse too much suspicion if the letters happened to be intercepted or stolen by some scallywag. We passed the money to the next passenger on our train.
These runaways became a serious epidemic among the other ironmasters in the County. Each master was losing their slaves at the rate of at least one a week. This was 15-20 slaves, all told, escaping north every week to Kentucky. The opposing iron masters grew tired of losing. They had no end game for losing and the growing loss of their workers through escalating escapes lowered their production even more. The iron masters put more and more pressure on the Court to do something to stop this mass exodus. The County had a duty, they said, to protect their holdings. This was, after all, their owned property that was walking away. If the County Court couldn’t protect their interests they would take their bankrolls further south, they said, to Dickson County and beyond.
The Elam brothers knew what was happening but never let on and they never questioned an unfamiliar face that may have been seen hiding too far north in the County. The other furnace masters and the Committee of Safety riders suspected that the Elam boys were helping slaves to escape, but they could never prove it. They hated them for this and they began to tighten the noose around the Great Western’s neck.
Luke and Brandon Elam felt the pressure coming. They called for a special meeting of all the workers at the Great Western and the word was that it was not going to be good. Since the Committee of Safety had ratcheted up their enforcement of the, “No more than three slaves meeting together at any one time law”, the brothers called for the assembly to be held on the grounds of the Great Western. After all that was happening, it was the only good and safe place left for them to meet. So, under the disguise of work, a late harvest celebration, and the coming of Christmas, the final meeting of the workers of the Great Western Furnace in Stewart County, Tennessee was planned for November 28th, 1856.
End of Chapter 5
In the peace and quiet of your back yard, when you look up at the stars at night what do you see? Do you see what the ancients saw? Do you, can you, will you comprehend what they sought to understand? If you were only male and female, if you removed all of the clutter from your lives, all of the material “things” that we chase every day, would you see only pure love in your life? Would you have a greater appreciation for everything around you?
If your life was unobstructed by alarm clocks and deadlines, if ONLY the basic necessities of food and shelter and clothing were required to sustain you and keep you happy could you be free to be a greater, more integral part of the universe around you? Would love be your compass?
I can’t explain this any better than you just watching it.
All I will offer as advice is, don’t just hear it. “Listen” to it. Give it your undivided attention. I watch it for about 30 minutes, or so, before my “life” calls me away. This is the life that we have all been “trained” to follow. Sometimes I can squeeze in an hour of watching before I must leave. Then, I come back when I am ready to “listen” again.
Be mindful. Be aware.
Watching this will prepare you for the vortex of mathematical equations that I will share with you later. All of these things I share with you, this 7 and 1/2 hour video and the mathematical energy equations that will follow, have one purpose. That is, to help to bring us all closer to God.
NO ONE alive, with sentient thought,
We, you, me, ALL of us can understand this if we just “listen” with our minds. Focus.
Its way better than teevee. If you say that you don’t have time for this in your lives then it truly means that you must make time for this in your lives.
Am I crazy, you might ask? Have I lost “it”? If wanting to separate myself from the warped frequencies of every day “normal living” and wanting to be closer to God and love is crazy then I stand guilty of that. We have been trained by the teevee to turn from God. We must put love back into our lives. This video helps us to do that. This video does make one reference to God as a “skydaddie” and I disagree with this characterization as I believe that our God does control our lives through his word. Nothing is perfect in this world. We each make our own determinations. Thank you for seeing past these imperfections.
Of course, The Excitement Chapter 5, The Turning, will continue in a few days and I thank you all for your continued interest. I just wanted to share with you some of the things, imho, that can change our lives for the better. God bless you all.
Edit update 02/07/2015: Wish I had time to get back into all of this with you, Potneckers. It is fascinating.
The glory of young men is their strength and the beauty of old men is the gray head.
Monday morning and fifty Monday mornings came and went. The men worked hard and the Great Western Furnace prospered like its name, greatly in its first year of operation. After just a few months of training, its men were producing nearly 40 tons of high-quality iron every week. Once molded and cooled, this pig iron was hauled daily by oxen to the Cumberland River where it was loaded onto flatboats and floated down to Vicksburg, MS and further, to New Orleans, LA. Because it was so popular, it was also pushed up the mighty Mississippi by paddle boat to St. Louis. Great Western pig iron was in strong demand across this country and its brand became most valuable as it was highly sought after by all traders. Even, more valuable than iron from any other Furnace in Stewart County. This fact didn’t sit very well with other Furnace founders of the County. They found out quickly that they played second fiddle to the Great Western and they did not like it. The owners of the Dover Furnace and the Bear Springs Furnace, built in 1820 and 1830, respectively always seemed to be at odds with the Great Western.
“How the hell is it that you, Luke Elam, produce a quality of iron better than ours,” barked Howard Claiborne one day on the Town Square of Dover. “We’ve been forming this pig iron for over 30 years at the Dover Furnace and in less than one year you upstarts come over here from across the river and now we’re sucking hind teat. It’s a damn shame, I’ll tell you that. Just how do you do it?”
“You don’t want to know, Mr. Claiborne. Besides, you wouldn’t listen to me if I told you, ” Luke replied.
“Try me, Elam. What’s your secret, boy?” In his simple mind, Howard Claiborne thought Luke Elam had figured out something extra to add to the iron that was making it stronger, making it better, and he would steal any man’s idea if it befitted him.
“We treat our men better, Howard. That’s it, plain and simple. Everything is centered on the worker. We pay them a decent wage. We keep them in good clothing and protect them better from getting burnt. We take care of their families while they work and they stay focused on producing a better product. You should try it,” Luke Elam said, with a wry smile.
“Our Negroes do just fine at the end of a whip, boy,” Claiborne snapped. “Giving them hope for freedom that will never come is just a cruel joke that you are playing on your slaves. Everybody knows that these men are chattel to be used for our gain. You feeding them with thoughts of freedom is only creating problems here, boy. Hope is the worst thing that you can give them. You’re just going to get them all killed thinking like that. Cross Elam was one of my closest friends and he’s turning over in his grave right now knowing what you two boys have become. Word is that you are giving your Negroes their freedom. You should both be ashamed of yourselves.”
“Not everyone believes that Claiborne,” Luke said, stoically. “And my Mama was a Page. That’s who I take after.”
“It shows,” Claiborne said, as he spat his sacred tobacco juice on the ground.
Luke Elam was on the edge of overstepping his place. Howard Claiborne ran the Dover Furnace and he ran Dover, as well. He owned the Constable and he owned the Court House. For 30 years his money, his influence, and his power had made men and had broken them, just as well. He had personally seen to it that innocent men were hung by the neck until they were dead and the guilty as sin were set free, all on his word. After 30 years there was at least one man in every part of the County that was beholding to him, that owed him. This list of men was long and nearly every family in the County had a name on it. If you went up against Howard Claiborne you risked ruin, you risked visits in the night by his Committee of Safety, and you even risked death. Many a farmer had been burned out on his order and made to set out walking, on foot, towards Kentucky. If a family went against Howard Claiborne and got away with their lives and the shirts on their backs they should have considered themselves lucky.
Luke Elam was telling the truth.
The men of the Great Western worked hard to make the very best pig iron in the County and the Great Western was making money hand over fist. Luke Elam’s operation at the Great Western was the model of the way Furnaces should be run. The limestone and brown hematite they dug was abundant in Stewart County and proved to be the best that could be found to ultimately be used in the creation of boilerplate, iron skillets, and sugar kettles. The items made from Stewart County Great Western pig iron were second to none in the Country.
All of the working men were kept in better clothes and boots. Gloves and leather gear protected their skin and they were able to work closer and longer with the molten iron. They were able to form it in the best possible way. The work was very hard but, as promised, there were no surprises. New men that were hired on were all started out the same way, with a pick and ax digging limestone and hematite from the earth. Men who had previously worked the pick and ax jobs were promoted and this opportunity for advancement kept productivity very high.
As Mr. Luke and Mr. Brandon increased their wealth, they increased their responsibility, too. Those twenty workers on the farm were replaced almost immediately. The first twenty workers at the Furnace began to train twenty more within weeks of beginning production. After forty weeks of constant training and hiring, the Great Western Furnace employed over eighty men and more were coming on the site every week. Educated men were needed for the payroll. Tenders were needed for the oxen. Carpenters were required for upkeep and repair of the wagons and to create the picks, the axes, and other tools that were needed for production. Blacksmiths kept the horses shod and the oxen yokes strong and were needed to create the molds and the kettles that held the molten iron.
The Great Western discriminated against no one. Mr. Luke hired any able bodied man or young boy that could do the work. Pull your load, earn your pay, they said. Irish and Chinese worked alongside Whites, Negroes and boys. Two strong backed women also worked the Furnace. There was no rest for the weary but where sweat pours, money followed and money was thick at the Great Western Furnace. Everyone worked together in a peaceful coexistence and everyone smiled at the paymaster as they collected their earnings and went their own way.
Hilton not only saved $100 dollars for his freedom during that first year, he saved $150! The year of 1855 ended on a positive note. It was the best Christmas his family had known for a long, long time. Miss Eleanor even had her baby on a Sunday so Mr. Hilton could be there to hold his newborn son on the first day of his life. Mr. Luke told Hilton to take as much time as he needed to be home with Miss Eleanor, but Hilton was back to work the very next day, as usual, on Monday morning. And, just as Luke had promised, Mr. Hilton was needed badly. Mr. Brandon allowed that his best cook and housemaid, old Miss Effie, could stay with Miss Eleanor for three months to help her with Samuel and the new baby. After about three weeks of Miss Effie’s extra helping and expert guidance, Miss Eleanor told Mr. Brandon that she was much obliged, but she was sure that she could make it on her own now. They both had a good laugh when Mr. Brandon asked if she were sure and she replied, “absolutely”. Hilton and Eleanor named their new child Hilmon and their life in Stewart County was very good.
If Mr. Luke was the heart of the Great Western, Mr. Hilton was its soul. They needed one another to survive that first year and together they made very few mistakes.
Cast thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days.
The beginning of the year of our Lord, 1856 started out better than any other before it. There was hope now. In one year, Hilton would be a free man. We lived free now, really. But, by law and by paper, Hilton still had to work the Furnace for another year to earn enough money to buy his legal freedom credentials. That’s how long it was going to take to earn the last $190 dollars that stood between him and the County’s recognized freedom.
It wasn’t like before, though. Times were different now. We had money. It was almost to the point that we had little arguments over how to spend it. Or, how not to spend it. I told Hilton that just because we had a little money that was no reason to flaunt it. I meant it, too, but Hilton just wanted us to be happy. So, when the River Boats came singing, we spent a little bit of it. My goodness, what pretty songs those boats played on their steam organs as they danced up and down the river. They stopped just about every day. Over the months, we began to allow ourselves an occasional extravagance, a little pretty. Hilton bought me a new dress made of all cotton from Nashville. It felt so much better than the calico and burlap that I was used to wearing. I felt guilty putting it on, but it sure did lay soft on my skin. I thanked Mr. Hilton proper, for that. It made me feel like a new woman. Little Samuel was getting bigger now. He had never owned his own pair of shoes so we bought him his first pair. We also bought him a new Sunday set of trousers with suspenders and a colored shirt. He looked so smart and so handsome dressed in that. He looked just like his father. They even bought matching hats.
Samuel was 9 years old in 1856 and had his chores to do around the house and Hilton made sure he paid him every week. It wasn’t much he allowed Samuel, just a token really, but Hilton said he wanted his boy to know what it felt like to earn a living. He wanted him to get used to making money so he would know what it was like to have it. He wanted to teach him how to live within his means. Samuel loved to hear those River Boats come singing, too. He saved his own money for weeks and bought himself a book. The new book was named The Indian And The Fur Trapper and Hilton read it to him on Sundays until Samuel learned to read it all on his own. Hilton bought new reading spectacles that made him look distinguished and together we bought a new spice rack that was full of spices to cook with. I had only dreamed of having things like this before. These were the dreams of my innocent youth. These were the dreams formed at a time when the dirt from setting grape vines was still fresh on my hands.
What were once things that seemed unreachable, not even within the dreams of our lives, they now became something that we could imagine having. We thanked God, and hard work, for that.
It didn’t cost much and didn’t mean any less for us, really, in our pocketbooks to always take a neighbor with us whenever we went down to the Riverboat landing. Many of our friends from across the farms weren’t as fortunate as Hilton. Many of them didn’t have a family member that worked the Great Western. Most of them still struggled in the fields for a pauper’s pay, for their own keep or worse, they continued to suffer daily abuse at the whipping Furnaces. So, whenever I went to the landing I always took a friend and insisted on buying them a little treasure that would be so simple yet, mean so much. No one that I remember ever bought a gift for themselves, only something to take home for their children. It gave me and reminded us all, of hope. Hope was something that was in short supply in Dover. It was something that we would always need.
Good Spring and early Summer rains made for a fine planting season and we knew the sacred tobacco harvest would be a good one. Mr. Brandon’s sons were 15 and 16 years old now and together both of them almost made up for not having Hilton on the farm. They did very well for themselves especially considering that the Elam’s had set aside ten more acres of farmland for the sacred plant. Just like that old river, everything seemed to be moving along its normal path.
One Sunday after a dinner on the ground at the River, Mr. Luke allowed that soon he, and Hilton, would not only be home on Sundays but they would shorten their Saturdays to only half a day!
“Why to kill ourselves on the short haul, Mr. Hilton?” he asked. “Lord willing, we are going to be here a long time so let’s make sure we are at our best over the long haul. It’s the same money, we have the hands now in place to handle the situation in our absence, let’s make this job last a long, long time. An extra half day’s rest every week will keep us strong.”
I guess that was the happiest that we ever were. We would never be any happier than on those sun filled Sundays in the summer of 1856. Riverboats brought new families to the County, it seemed like, every day.
One Saturday afternoon, after Hilton came home early, we caught one of those dancing and singing riverboats and rode it all the way to Clarksville. Hilton called it our wedding celebration that we never got to have. He bought me a new, fancy dress, with shoes, and a hat to go with it and he made me feel like the most special woman in the County. We ate supper at a highfalutin restaurant with a maid who brought everything out to us and even cleaned up after us when we were finished. I felt like a queen in one of those Riverboat books. We saw something Hilton called a Play that was named, “Romeo and Juliet”. I thought it was the saddest and most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Hilton was so tired from the Mill that he slept through most of it, but I didn’t miss a word or a move during the whole presentation. We spent the night in a room looking out over the River and I made love to my man like it was the first time, all over again. Afterward, as we sat outside under the moon and the stars watching that old river roll by Hilton whispered in my ear, “When love is love, baby.”
“It’s you and me,” I answered. I never felt so loved and so in love and so proud to be alive. It was hard to believe that so much had changed in our lives in only one short year.
End of Chapter 4
Honor. Tradition. Love. Family. Strength. Courage. Sacrifice.
All of these words, and 1,000 more, define what is found in the lives of people from Potneck.
In our newest feature, “Stories From Potneck”, PNN will share with you the power that fuels our lives. Reading these stories will help people understand why we are proud to call ourselves “Potneckers”.
We know who we are and with these stories we remember where we came from. These are your stories and at PNN we hope to receive them by the truckloads so that we may never run out of ways to share our love for Potneck.
Send your stories by clicking on the “Comment” section below or private message me on Facebook.
We are proud to be Potneckers and this is one place that we can show it!
A special thank you to Mitchell Earhart for providing PNN with excellent pictures from Potneck.
Special thanks, also, to our first contributors, Pamela Kay Austin via LeAnna Oliver. Their story embodies Potneck, to the core.
Great Western Days
Where no oxen are, the crib is clean: but much increase is by the strength of the ox.
“Miss Eleanor, you and Samuel get ready to come with me, if you like, to the meeting house. Mr. Brandon Elam says his brother, Luke, is coming across the river from Great Western and he’s got a job offer to make us. The word is that it may be about us working at the new Iron Furnace they’ve built over there and buying our freedom with the earnings. It’s what we’ve been hoping and praying about for so long. You feel up to it, Mama?” Hilton Jacobs placed a large, strong, but gentle hand over his wife’s pregnant belly as he asked her this question.
“I don’t think I can, Hilton,” she answered. I felt sick in my stomach again this morning and I don’t feel up to chasing Samuel down when all he wants to do is run and play. And, besides, that meeting house is no place to meet, anyway. You know what the Court said.” Eleanor didn’t want to preach to her husband, but she did want him to think about everything that was going on around him.
“No more than three slaves can meet together at any one time. That’s the County law! Now, that does worry me a bit but you go on. If the Elam brothers are calling it then surely those Committee of Safety men won’t hold you up. I’ll stand by you if you want to go over to the Furnace and work. The Elam’s are honest and fair and I trust in you and them to do what is right. Samuel and I will be just fine right here.” She looked her husband in the eye as she spoke.
“But you watch out for them County men!” Eleanor was always cautious for her husband.
Theirs was a relationship founded in love, built on trust, and held together with honor. It all began for them on the first day of Spring, 1846. Eleanor and Hilton were thrown together in haste to satisfy old man Cross Elam’s desire to have a new grapevine set that very morning. The only people available to do it right then and there were a young house maiden who was more in the way than a help and a new man just brought over from North Carolina named Hilton Jacobs.
When old man Cross said, “now”, he meant, “Now!” He supervised every detail of that morning’s grapevine setting with an eagle’s eye and a buzzard’s pecking. To him, this vine was no different than any of the rest. The old coot had, at least, twenty-five other grapevines he tended to and considered himself to be an expert on their raising. For someone who never got any dirt on his hands, he knew a lot. He was particular, too. He whipped a man once for running casually through his vineyards. He was a hard man to please.
The first time Hilton laid eyes on Eleanor he was a changed man. Surely, he thought to himself, he had reached the Promised Land because there, in front of him, stood an angel.
Thick as they were and with braces that were twenty years ahead of their time, Hilton Jacobs molded the framework for the vines not as if he were making it for their owner but as if he was making it for Eleanor. Ol’ Cross could see right off that this new man had a fine hand for the grapes, but it was just beyond his grasp as to why he worked so compassionately to set them just right. After this day, Cross Elam saw to it that Hilton’s main job was tending to all the grapevines and their supports that were scattered throughout his empire. Hilton cared substantially less about those vines than he did about the young woman he now worked alongside. He adored her. It was no secret to him that the longer, the harder, he worked on the grapes, the more time he was able to spend with her, his angel. He mentioned to Mr. Elam that the young girl had a fine eye for the grapes. The old czar agreed and their destiny would soon be met.
At first, young Eleanor became frustrated with the new man’s meticulous surroundings of the vine’s braces and how they must be maintained to the tiniest detail.
“Just please move on with it,” she demanded.
“You’ll like these grapes, Miss Eleanor. I promise it,” he said.
Later that night as she lay awake in her bed, she did, indeed, realize that the special care he offered to the work was actually intended for her, to impress her. She hoped it to be so. She thought to herself, what would it be like if he were that way in everything he did and if it were so, wouldn’t it be nice and wouldn’t it be like Heaven, on earth? It was then, in the stillness of her night, that she prayed to God, the Almighty, that she had found the man she could spend the rest of her life with. Her awkward, nervous excitement kept her awake for hours. At her young age, she had never had this feeling before. Could she make him see it? Would she need to?
But, the die was already cast. In Hilton Jacob’s bed, across the farm and so many years ago, another kindred soul found it, too, had trouble falling asleep.
“You make me strong,” Hilton told his wife. “My life was nothing before I met you. I went from being a field hand to a family man after you came into my life. You’ve given me reason to live and reason to prosper. Everything I am, I am because of you. I want to tell you every day how much I love you, Mrs. Eleanor Jacobs.” Hilton held her hands. “You make me proud to be your man. I’ll be back directly with the good news, I hope.”
“When love is love, baby, it’s you and me,” Eleanor said as she reached to caress the cheeks of her husband’s face.
“When love is love,” Hilton answered.
The house where the working men were to meet was North of the main house by about a mile and three-quarters. It lay across a green meadow and down through a well-worn wagon path that passed two sacred tobacco fields, a creek that fed the river, and woods of oak and hickory. By the way, it flanked a limestone bluff that overlooked the river. When Hilton arrived there were already a large number of men gathered to hear what Mr. Luke Elam had to offer them. Word of the prospect of freedom traveled fast.
Almost all of the black men present, or their mothers and fathers, were brought to this County in bondage. The one thread that ran true for most of them was that they were all brought here, one way or another, by Cross Elam. He was dead now. Killed by a falling rafter in a sacred tobacco barn back in ’51. Justice, some people said. It fell hard now on Luke and Brandon Elam to consider the destiny of these men. They judged it to be their Christian obligation to do them right by God’s law. It was a challenge they did not take lightly. They were saddled with the burden of Cross Elam’s life and they aimed to make it right.
Old man Cross Elam had spent a large portion of the family’s fortune on acquiring slaves. Over twenty-five thousand dollars in good deals, and bad, some speculated. It fell on the brother’s shoulders, after their daddy passed, to do something with that investment.
Seventeen male slaves and a few “free men” stood and watched as the Elam brothers walked toward the steps of the meeting house to address them. The Elam’s didn’t go up the steps but stood on the ground in front of them and looked directly in their eyes as they spoke.
“Good afternoon, men,” Brandon Elam began. “Do you mind if we start with a word of prayer?”
Hilton knew right off that negro men praying in public was against the County law, but he bowed his head just like everybody else.
“Father, we know that you are our Savior. We pray that this beginning, whatever it may be, will be filled with your presence. We ask that you continue to bless us, protect us, and guide us in our lives so that we may walk with you in the light and others will know immediately that we are Christians. We thank you, Dear Lord, for your salvation and your saving grace. We thank you for your word, Lord, which nourishes us and gives us strength. In Jesus’ holy name we pray, Amen and Amen. I’m proud that you’ve all chosen to come and hear what my brother has to say,” the younger Elam announced after the prayer.
“I think he has an offer that may benefit us all. As many of you know, after our daddy passed things changed a little around here. He, rest his soul, believed a mighty bit different than we do about keeping workers. Since his death, we have not increased your numbers and we are most interested in every one of you obtaining your freedom as soon as possible. In this way, you may all get on with your lives and raise your families the way you choose, in the manner that you decide. That is all we want and we are sure that is all you want, too. If we could we would set everyone here free immediately. But, we can’t do that. With no help in the fields, we could not get our tobacco out or in and we would lose everything. The livestock would suffer tremendously with no one to tend and to care for them. We understand the wonderful prominence that you have and the skills that you bring to our farm. We hope you will understand that we have to make a transition to the new way that is fair to everyone. To this end, we know that while working the tobacco fields you can only save about twenty dollars a year to put towards buying your freedom. A whole year’s worth of work only yields twenty dollars! Hilton you, for example, after eight solid years of farm work have only paid one hundred sixty dollars on your five hundred dollar freedom debt. You have put that twenty dollars every year on your debt. Others don’t. Others may work ten years and not pay a dime on their debt. They will never earn their freedom. My question to you, and everyone else here is this; what is the sense in working for your freedom if it takes twenty years to forever to earn it? The best years of your life are then behind you. Your children are grown. Then, you have to start all over on your own free dreams. I am sorry that is all we’ve had to offer you for these past few years and I thank you for your patience with us. It’s just that you, and we, have grown accustomed to that way of life. That was the “Cross” way of living. It was the only horse in town, the only road to take, and it was all we knew. But that was the old way. Now, my brother Luke wants to give you another choice. He wants to offer you another road to travel. Don’t be afraid to change, gentlemen.” Brandon Elam stepped aside and Luke began to speak.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. Thank you, again, for coming. The Lord has blessed us with a beautiful day. I’ll get right to the point. As many of you already know, over at Great Western we’ve spent three years building a brand new iron mill. Now we need good, strong men to operate it and care for it. She’s like a lady, men. If you take care of her and treat her right she’ll make us all better for it. I will not give you any false hope or false promises, it is hard work and it is hot work. Many of you who agree to go will be mining for ore in the side of a hill with pick and ax. You’ll work ten hours a day Monday through Saturday to get that pig iron out and it will take you nigh on two hours a day to travel to and from work. That is if you choose not to stay and bunk all week and go home only on Sunday. At the Great Western Furnace, there will be two full working shifts and a cleanup crew at night. Altogether, the mill will operate twenty-four hours a day. I say again and hear me, it is hard and demanding work but, if you agree to work at the Furnace, you will be provided with many extra allowances. Among these will be tougher and more durable clothes to wear. New boots will be given every six months to each man who continues to work the mill. Special consideration will be given to those of you with families to support. You’ll be spending more time at the Great Western and you won’t want to worry about having enough food or wood or water at home. We will see that all of your family’s needs are met. Doubled, if need be. Finally, and this is the best news of all, for every one of you here today who agrees to our plan and will sign on, my brother will be allocated, to set aside, one hundred dollars. Of that sum, twenty-five dollars, after three months at the mill will go directly into your pockets to spend any way that you like. Twenty-five dollars of that money will go to Mr. Brandon to hire workers for the tobacco field and farm positions that you vacate. We can not let our crops and our livestock fall away without proof that our Furnace will sustain us, men. But the bulk of the money, fifty dollars a year, will go directly into your “freedom funds”. This money will buy back your freedom at a much faster pace.
In conclusion, to assure all of you that we are serious about Freedom, anyone here that will commit today to work the Great Western, and will work it for a two-year contract, will have fifty dollars subtracted from their total price of Freedom. This will take effect, Lord willing, with a twenty-five dollar subtraction one year from today and a twenty-five dollar subtraction two years from today. Everyone think about where they were one year ago. It’s gone by quickly hasn’t it, men?
Hilton, you could be a free man in three years, not twelve. Then, for the next ten years after that, you’ll be earning over one hundred dollars a year at the mill working as a free man and all of this for you and for your family! You could buy the land you live on, work it for yourself, and answer to no man. That is Freedom, gentlemen. That’s my offer, the high and the low of it. I’m here to see if any of you might be interested. I need to know today. If you are, please make your mark next to your name on this piece of paper and I’ll be waiting for you on Monday morning at five o’clock by the river to ferry you across that river and into your free future. There will be no surprises. I hope you will all give this a great deal of consideration before you sign. Everything said here today is true. Especially, the part about the hard work. That is the truest word of all.”
As Luke Elam stepped away from the steps and walked towards a table that was set up with paper and writing instruments, he tried to look the men in their eyes to get an understanding of their feelings. Many had gathered around Hilton Jacobs and the Elam brothers heard the men of bondage asking Hilton questions. They wanted to know if it were true, could they be free men in just a few years? Would their families be taken care of in their absence? Would the Elam’s do as they promised? Hilton answered in the affirmative on every question and added that he thought, in his heart, that they would do all these things.
With every answered question, the men looked unbelievably towards one another. Some smiled wildly. A few had tears in their eyes and did not speak. Luke hoped, even prayed, that he spoke the right words and, as he took his spot at the table, he learned that he had. All of those men who had smiled wildly before, all of those who had said nothing before, all of those with bewildered looks before, now formed a group that began to make a long line in front of the table. They reached out to shake his and his brother’s hand and to take their turn at the signing table. The hand shaking was the bond. The signing was just a formality.
“Thank-you, Mr. Luke. We’ll be there. We’ll all be there,” they told him.
“Don’t thank me yet, gentlemen,” Luke warned. “After a month at the mill, you may all hate me.”
Of the seventeen men the Elam brothers hoped to recruit to begin to fill the ranks of the Great Western, twenty were signed. The signing of the three free men was especially important to the brothers because they would show that these men could earn all of their money for just themselves and that there was, indeed, truth in their words.
All of the men’s spirits were lifted. They agreed, sometimes, that if God had meant for their journey through life to be spent, for a time, as slaves, he allowed that their paths on this Earth would cross with Luke and Brandon Elam. Their farms were tolerable. They treated dutiful workers with dignity and humanity. They did not believe in whipping or posting as most of the other owners did. But, most importantly, the eventual goal was common to all, Freedom. From this quest for freedom a mutual respect was forged.
Luke Elam was fond of saying that it was every man’s right to choose the plow or the book. By that, he meant that a man could farm or learn a trade. He considered them both equal and honest ways of making a living and made it possible for all men under his direction to have that choice.
In open defiance of the County Court, both brothers allowed all of their hands to meet freely to discuss any problems that they had. They allowed Church services to be held on their property and did their level best to keep the Court’s deputies from disrupting any religious meetings. Many were the times an Elam brother was seen at the Stewart County Court House paying a ten dollar fine for unlawful assembly of slaves.
After Cross Elam died the brothers called all of the dutiful workers together and told them they were working on a solution to the problem of taking so long to earn their freedom.
Now Mr. Luke had, in three gratifying years, worked himself into the position of “founder” at the newly built Great Western Furnace. He was second in command only to the “iron master”, who also happened to be one of the principle owners. Old Cross, when he was alive, would never allow young Luke to work any of the established iron mills spread throughout the County.
“You’ll always be a tobacco farmer, boy. Get used to it,” the old man would say and then spit his mouthful of sacred tobacco juice at the feet of the young Elam whenever the subject came up.
It was very soon after their father died that the two brothers made a calculated guess that one of them could continue farming as easily as two and the other could learn the lucrative Iron business. They ventured that both of them would benefit greatly in the outcome. Now, only three short years later, the brothers were ready to put their well-laid plans into effect. The brothers were talking to Hilton Jacobs.
“Hilton,” said Brandon Elam, “You are one of the main reasons as to why our farm was able to keep up and operate over the last three years without Mr. Luke around. You’ve helped us get to this point as much, or more than anyone else here and I mean to tell you that I thank you for that.”
Mr. Luke added, “Hilton, I’m not going to lie to you or anybody else here. If we can’t make this new operation run smoothly and efficiently and turn a profit, then I am out of a job. I won’t know as much as I think I do and I guess all we can ever hope to be are tobacco farmers. But I don’t believe that. I want you, Mr. Hilton, to be my daytime “keeper” at the mill. You’ll get extra pay for that. I’ll teach you everything you need to know. What I mean is, I’ll soon need you more than you will need me. Can we do this?”
“You can count on me, Mr. Luke,” Hilton said, confidently.
“One more thing,” Luke said. “You will be overseeing many men at the Great Western. From this day forward, Brandon and I will always refer to you as Mr. Hilton and so shall all of your men. So, thank you, Mr. Hilton.”
Until his dying day, that was so.
Hilton was without words. Mr. Luke was nearly 15 years older than he was. Hilton was still a young man when he first came to know the Elam brothers. Now they would call him Mister! He had to let all of this sink in. He had to get home to Miss Eleanor to share this news with her. It was, almost, too good to be true.
Shots fired! Shots fired overhead! Everyone hunkered down and looked around with surprise. They had all been so caught up in their future plans no one noticed that County Constable and Committee of Safety rider Thomas Opson had quietly slipped up on them on horseback with four other Committee of Safety riders. He fired his rifle into the air.
“This is an unlawful assembly. You Elam’s know the law! Both of you brothers are under arrest for allowing an unlawful assembly of Negroes. You coming peacefully?” Opson asked.
“This is an agricultural lesson Opson,” Brandon allowed, “Nothing more.”
“I don’t care what it is, Elam,” Opson argued. “Let’s go to Dover to see what the Judge has to say about it.”
“Both of us, Opson? We only had one meeting.” Luke answered.
“Alright, Elam. One of you get on your horse and go with us to Dover and the other one gets these workers on a march back to their quarters and Elams, I do mean now.”
Luke looked at Hilton. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We knew this could happen. We expected it to. They will Fine me ten dollars and I’ll be on my way. Stay with Brandon, keep the men together and safe, see them home and I’ll meet you Monday morning at the ferry. Good luck, Mr. Hilton.”
“Good luck, Mr. Luke,” Hilton said as they both shook hands in front of an indignant Thomas Opson.
End of Chapter 3
THE MONKEY AND THE IGUANA
When we reached the house Drew went by the fireplace to sit. Once there, he soon fell asleep. Mama went about her regular Sunday after Church routine of helping Miss Elly with the chores. They sat on the side porch rocking, talking, and separating the last of the sacred tobacco seed for the planting.
“Miss Elly,” Mama said, “I’m thinking about something special for supper tonight to go with those beans we’ve got soaking. What do you think about that fatted hen in the coop? Do you reckon she’d pluck out easy and boil up good?”
Miss Elly smiled. “I reckon she would indeed, Margaret. But what about Marse James? Won’t he be furious that we cooked up one of his prized hens without him being here to oversee the plucking and eat the breast?”
“That fat hen will be eaten and long forgotten before that man ever sets foot back on this property, if he ever does.” I was surprised to hear Mama say that.
“Then it’s settled, Elly,” she added. “Later, I’ll get a pot of water boiling and commence to pulling those feathers. We’ll make it a real fancy sit down supper and we’ll let Sassy make those dumplings we’ve been promising to teach her about. Will you ask Mose, later, to sharpen up his hatchet?”
“I will, Margaret,” Miss Elly said with a satisfied smile.
I didn’t know why they were planning this frilly supper. We only had chicken on celebration days and we would never do anything like this without daddy here. He would forbid it. I thought Mama must surely be going crazy or, at least, trying to hide her sadness by busying herself with a day’s worth of work. To sacrifice one of his precious hens without him being here was something that I just couldn’t understand.
It seemed that most everyone else, though, was excited about this last minute supper and a small crowd was beginning to gather around the chicken coop to watch Mose make that hen run around the stump with its head cut off.
I knew that my friend, Hilmon, would be on Writer’s Rock waiting for me, but I wasn’t ready to go down to the rock just yet. Those Federal men had come by the house first looking for my father and then they proceeded on to the church. Everyone knew my daddy was in jail. The terrible secret was out. Our pretentious innocence was covered with shame. I couldn’t face my friend.
I went to the only place I could find peace. I went to the tree. My oak tree. Along a line running north and south on the eastern side of the house stood a row of fifteen oak trees. All of them were 60 years old and they were each 20 paces apart. Grandpa knew how old they were because he planted them. He planted them all except the furthest one out from the house, the one that marked the entrance to our road. This tree was older than the other oaks. It was, according to my Grandfather, over 100 years old. When you walked down that long row of trees and got to the oldest and the biggest one, the last one away from the house, you were on the road to Dover.
In older times, Grandpa said, this old oak was the setting for the celebration of a new beginning. After the War of Independence, veterans of that War gathered here, around this tree, with their families to remember the sacrifices and to remember those who gave their lives for freedom. We whipped those redcoats twice, Grandpa loved to say. They used to assemble there every year in the summer, he said, to celebrate, but those days ended long before my time. He told me grand stories about the food and the happiness and the large groups of people that once congregated around this tree. My tree.
More than one Governor had spoken beneath it, he bragged. Grandpa said he missed those celebrations after they stopped. He said people forgot about the sacrifices that were made to win that War. People forgot about how hard it was to get free. He said his daddy reminded him of that every day. He said that making a free living, once only a dream, was made available to everybody because of that War, the War for Independence. Andy Jackson’s War only proved that we were right, he said, and they celebrated that here, too.
He always told me, the journey of life is the reward. Nobody remembers their beginning and the end is always just a little too sad. The journey of life is where your most precious memories are made.
He didn’t agree with that northern war that came to Dover. It didn’t seem right to him that we all had to fight again and even amongst ourselves. He said the problem was that people wanted perfection or at least they expected everyone else to be perfect. They expected perfection in an imperfect world and they had nothing more important to do than to hurry about pointing fingers about why everyone else was wrong. That was why they stopped coming to the celebrations, he said. It was because of all of the hurrying and the scurrying and the forgetting about what was important. It was because people were not taking care of their own.
It was under this tree, in the wonder of Spring, that he showed me the path to reach a higher plane, a plane separated from the tangled web of man. He showed me a place where inner peace could replace outer struggle. It’s a simple thing, really. Slow down, he said. Slow down. Grandpa taught me to lay back in the great tree of understanding. He said to let its branches be your cradle. Rest your head back, close your eyes, and breathe. Then, listen. Listen to the sounds around you and understand how to live within them. There is a peace to be found there, he said. And he was right.
This massive tree leaned just enough into the road so that footsteps carved into its side by my Grandfather provided an easy access to climbing up and into its hidden domain. Just as with him two generations before, it now became my fortress. It was my fortress of wood. I felt safe there. The world in all of its glory could go by and nothing could harm me there. I wanted the world to go by quickly now.
In the summer when the leaves are green and full no one can see you there. The branches are thick and one can easily lay on them without fear of falling. Hilmon and I stayed there for hours at a time watching the carriages and the people streaming by like so many fish on the road below us. This was the road to the West. This was the road back to the East. There was never a shortage of travelers on this road. Sometimes we would toss acorns or green walnuts at the backsides of their horses to see them jump and scatter. Hilmon was the best. He could strike a horse in the hindquarter with one throw nearly every time. Laughter became our only giveaway. The tree was our window to the world and together Hilmon and I watched it go by. Together, we speculated on its vastness, on its smallness, on its cruelty, and on its compassion. All of these things came, we soon understood, in their own time and in no small quantity.
Now, and again, came the beginning of Spring. It was my favorite time of the year. Only the rain was left of a cold winter and the summer days of life lie ahead. The leaves of my oak were not yet in full bloom but even in the Spring I could hide in the tree with little effort. Branches of enormous size crisscrossed the road and you actually had to lean out of them to be seen. The branches were open and comfortable and I lay there motionless on my branch watching carriages come and go from our house with some regularity. All of the haughty, stately neighbors were coming by to assure Mama that everything would be all right. They each stayed about ten minutes. Not even long enough for tea. Then, they left. Sometimes, as the carriages met in the roadway beneath me, they paused to discuss the situation with one another and I could hear them talking about the Excitement. The Excitement they talked about didn’t sound like the excitement that happened in our church.
I don’t know, but I think I fell asleep and was dreaming so it was a long time before I came down from the tree. I thought I heard Hilmon calling my name before I realized he wasn’t there. It was way after supper and almost dark when I finally got back to the house. Miss Elly and Mama were taking turns rocking and playing with Miss Elly’s new grandbaby on the front porch. Mama asked me if I wouldn’t mind stacking some firewood on the side porch. I knew we hadn’t had blackberry winter yet so I started right into stacking. Miss Elly asked me if I needed any help, but I said no, thank you. She smiled and started into the house but stopped just outside the door.
“Hil went down to the tree looking for you at suppertime. You feel all right, Comer”, she asked?
“Yes, Miss Elly, I feel fine”, I answered. I kept stacking wood on the porch until it was more than enough to warm a blackberry winter. I stacked it up high but safe enough to stand on its own. I didn’t know when daddy would be home, but I had a feeling that my sacred tobacco patch just got bigger.
It was dark and I was hungry so I ate some dumplings and cornbread before I went to bed. I tried not to think about daddy much and I slept well, for all the commotion of the day. I slept so well that the next morning I woke up late. The sun was already up. I was called, Miss Elly said, but missed a sit-down breakfast so I grabbed a biscuit and rushed out the door to find Hilmon. The sting of Sunday’s events had somehow softened with the arrival of a new day. The sun was shining and it was even warmer than the day before. It felt good on my face. It made me feel more like Summer and it made me more anxious to get to Writer’s Rock to see Hilmon Jacobs.
I ran to the end of the oaks, turned away from town, and ran straight to the first curve in the road where I cut across the hollow and down into the clearing where Writer’s Rock lay. There, on the rock, I found Hil. Even this early in the morning, with the sun, just rising, I knew I could find my friend there. The hot sun was beaming through the trees and warming the large piece of limestone that we christened Writer’s Rock. Hilmon was there as he always was and spread across the top of it like dinner on a table. I mean, he was all over it. As I watched he arched his back, stretching through the morning rays. Pressing against the stone’s hardness with his shoulders and the back of his neck, he rolled his chest upward. He reached back and pushed up with his hands beside his head and elevated the smallness of his midsection into the air until he formed a perfect, inverted arch on the rock. Once his stretch was complete he settled effortlessly back down to the prone position and wriggled his toes freely in the warm sunlight.
Hil was my best friend. He had always been my best friend. He taught me how to fish. Not just dropping a line in the water kind of fishing, but how to think like a fish. Where I might go, what I might eat, and when I might be hungry if I were a fish. That included showing me his best, secret fishing holes. We got fat on fish! We hunted squirrels together, swam across the river together, and when we played fox and hounds nobody tree’d Hil and me. I learned the world from Hil. I even learned how to kiss a girl from Hil. Kind of, anyway. I saw him kissing Lucretia Skelton behind the haystack at the Harvest Festival. He knew that I saw him. She didn’t know. I saw the wink in his eye proclaiming his pride. I witnessed his celebration in living and his passion for life. I needed Hil to show me these things. He was closer to me than my own flesh and blood.
“Hil, hey Hil,” I say.
“Hey, Comer. Down here. On the rock,” he called back.
As I reached him we smiled at each other and nodded but did not speak. We just milled about, sitting on the rock, and I took off my shoes, too, so the heat from the rock could soak up into the soles of my feet.
We understood personal trials. We’d been through that before. I stood by Hil many times when he was challenged about his color or his upbringing by some poor bred, towny rapscallion who hurled ignorant, angry words or demeaning personal insults towards him. Even so, Hil didn’t need me to do that. He was a strong man in his own right. No matter what was said about him or us, we stood together. It was an inner bond that we shared. It said, plainly, I understand you and, as your friend, I stand beside you at all times. You are not alone.
It feels good to know that you have at least one friend who will never reject you, at least one person who you can count on when you need them. There is strength in knowing that not everyone is against you. Especially, if that someone is someone you trust with your life. Hilmon would never kick me when I was down. We sat there for a long time, enjoying the increasing warmth of the sun until, finally, I broke the silence.
“Mama left out early this morning,” I said. “According to Miss Elly, her and Uncle Mose went all the way to Clarksville. Miss Elly said they wouldn’t be back until Wednesday night, if then.
“I know,” Hil explained. “I watched them from the tree until they got all the way around the far bend.”
The far bend was a country mile away from Hilmon’s vantage point deep in the tree. Watching family members or friends as they left the farm was a safety precaution Hil and I practiced religiously. It was an understood form of protection, spiritual maybe, to be watched or to be looked out for until the line of sight was broken. As long as you could keep someone in your train, to us, they would remain safe and in the spirit of safety. It was an unspoken signal of vigilance for Hil and I and whether we be sender or receiver it acted as a shielding vanguard to keep our world unblemished, untangled, uncomplicated, and perhaps, even innocent. If you could see it you could protect it, we believed. There are bad men out in the world. Even, we understood, in Stewart County. No one should have to be alone. Anyway, it was good luck, we said, to keep someone in your sights as they were leaving. I knew Hil had done me a great favor.
“Thanks, Hil, ” I said. “I reckon she had to get over to the Court to see about daddy. It ain’t a good thing, Hil. Something ain’t right.”
“Reckon its been that way a long time, Comer.”
“I know, Hil. Yankees and all coming, it’s got to be about the War. But that’s been over a long time, Hil. Why did they come back now?” I asked.
“Comer, I’ll tell you something, but you got to promise not to tell anybody. You promise?”
“I promise, Hil,” I said. And I meant it.
“Comer, them wasn’t Yankees that come and got your daddy yesterday. Up at the Free Will Church last night the preacher said they come and got your daddy and four other men in the County yesterday over the Excitement that happened in Town about 15 years ago.”
“The excitement, what excitement?” I asked. I didn’t know what Hilmon was talking about because I was only 14 years old. “That was before I was born, Hil. How could those men come and get daddy over something that happened so long ago? That was even before the War!”
“I don’t know, Comer,” Hil said. “The Preacher acted more different than I have ever seen when he spoke about this Excitement. He said it was a bad time and a lot of people got hurt, even killed. I could tell it was important because everybody got real quiet and then the preacher started praying for strength and understanding. He come and stood right by my Mama and put his hand on her shoulder. When the prayer was finished we all just come home. I asked Mama what it was about, but she just shook her head, no.”
“Miss Elly didn’t tell you nothing,” I asked.
“Nothing,” Hil answered. “She just shook her head. That’s all I know.”
“Thanks, Hil. I won’t say anything.” I thought about what my father had to do with this bad time. I worried that it couldn’t be anything good. After a while, I told Hil that I was going home to sit for a spell. I felt like I needed to be at home with Drew. Maybe I could help him to understand. Maybe I could help myself to understand. I still didn’t know anything, but I had a bad feeling way up in my gut. I put my shoes back on, we said our goodbyes, and I got up to leave from the rock. After I walked all the way up to the top of the ridge, I turned and looked back down to see Hil. He lay there still, bathing on the rock in the Spring sun, but all the while watching me. As I looked he stood up erect and raised his long, sinewy arm above his head to wave goodbye, again. I waved back. It was then, at that moment, that I realized how much I needed Hil to be my friend and how much everything fit together between us. The trust, the honor, the respect, and the love was all there for me. It would be a very long time before I would come to understand that he could never need me the same way.
End of Chapter 2
Based on actual events occurring December 5th, 1856 in Dover, Tennessee.
The following portrayals would have been very hard to photograph.
“Turn with me in your Bibles, if you will, to Isaiah 1:15 and follow in the scripture.”
“And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; And yes, when you make many prayers, I will not hear: Your hands are full of blood.”
“Brethren,” the Preacher continued, “the Lord has a message for you here. Are you listening to Him? Do you understand what He is saying? Do you hear the warning He is giving you? You can’t keep on with your back door sinning, you can’t keep on hurting your neighbor, and you can’t keep on denying the presence of the Lord because when you’ve committed too much sin when you’ve gone too far with the Devil, your begging won’t do you any good. Your pleading won’t do you any good. The Lord won’t even look at you. He’ll turn his eyes away from you. He won’t listen to your prayers. He has no place in Heaven for you when your hands are full of blood. So, confess your sins, Brothers, and Sisters. I pray today that you will seek the mercy of the Lord before it is too late. On this fine April morning that our God has seen fit to share with us, where His sun is shining and His birds are singing, don’t tarry any longer. Our Father is calling you now. Will you answer Him? Will you come to Him, serve Him, and will you reconfirm your love for the Christ Jesus? If you will, come now around this altar for the Lord, seek His forgiveness, and thank Him for His everlasting, saving grace. Come now as we all stand and sing.”
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound. Everyone sang in a loud and proud voice. Our Preacher stirred us all up with his sermon and even though nobody took him up on his offer of salvation, we were all still happily singing right in the middle of it. I sang while my little brother Drew hummed. After the hymn, the Pastor asked the Deacons to take up an offering. They passed the twig woven collection baskets up and down the wooden church pews, picking up coins and an occasional dollar. I gave a Confederate dollar once but, Mama said it wasn’t any good to the church anymore. That’s when I knew all my Rebel money was bad. If the church couldn’t find a use for it then nobody could. Confederate money wasn’t worth a horse’s hair after 1865. It was just a pretty picture on a piece of paper. I traded with it when I could, mostly just with my friends, and sometimes at ten times less its value. Federal dollars were awfully hard to come by, even if you wanted them.
This Sunday, as always, Mama gave me and Drew a nickel’s worth of pennies to split up and we put them in the basket as it passed by. Today, I got to throw in two pennies and he dropped three. We switched up every week. Next week, Lord willing, I would give three and him, two. It was a ritual we’d been practicing for going on six years. Ever since that War of Northern Aggression ended and we were able to start going back to church regular, we did this. I was born 7 years before Drew so, as I remember, when we first started putting our pennies in I got to give four and he was happy just to put one in. Now that he is older and bigger, he wants to be more equal. That’s fair. Pretty soon I hope to be working for real wages raising my own sacred tobacco. Then, Lord willing, I’ll have my own money to give. I guess he’ll get to give the whole nickel then and be proud. He’ll feel bigger like I used to.
After the offering, we took Communion. “Go slow with the tray, Comer,” Mama said. She still remembered the Sunday morning when I spilled the Blood of Christ all over the brand new suit Drew was wearing and then, being afraid of my mistake, I ran outside leaving her with the unenviable task of picking up the thimble glasses and wiping down Drew.
Our mother threw her head back sharply as she accepted her holy elixir of life and the blood of Jesus raced, uninhibited, down her throat to purify her sins. Even so, if she had any sins we didn’t know about them. She always sat with her back straight and erect, much like her way. Her hands were folded nicely and rested gently in her lap as she sat. The collar on her dress stretched to the tip of her chin. She was a proper person. Her long black hair was streaked with gray but unless you looked closely you couldn’t really tell. She kept it braided, wound up, and in a tight bun pinned to the back of her head. Drew and me used to squeeze it like a sunflower whenever she sat in her rocker at home. On Sunday mornings, her hair was always covered with a white lace cap. The gray hair hidden by the cap revealed an age that had come quickly into her life. At 32, most women her age had less gray hair. She accepted hers with grace. She accepted it with dignity.
The paned, stained glass windows were open in the church and a warm breeze blew through them from side to side. It was a comfort to us all and kept most of our Resurrection Sunday hand fans tucked away in the handsome pockets that were fashioned on the back of each pew.
Drew fanned the air with one of them as he rested on Mama’s lap and I watched Mr. Lemuel Stimpson nodding off to sleep two rows in front of us. I counted the seconds between the time his head would drop. First eight, then six, now back to seven again. Both Mr. Lemuel and the Preacher seemed to move together in tempo and time. The cadence of the Preacher’s oration, tuned well with his natural spiritual power and strong force of delivery, was punctuated again and again with a thunderous Bible slapping or a foundation shaking foot stomping that would quickly snap ‘ol man Lemuel’s head up, at least for a second or two, in honest, intended attention. Then, without fail, his aged softness would lure and release him again to his impending inner sanctuary. It was a peaceful, silent, and undisturbed sanctuary that he surely must have spent a lifetime cultivating for himself. He could drift in and out of it most comfortably now. Whether he was in church or on his own front porch, he already understood the peace that passes all understanding. I looked forward to this kind of old age.
Today, the Preacher preached on redemption. How many times had Mr. Lemuel heard this particular sermon? Enough, I guess, that he could recite it in his sleep. I figured he must have heard them all many times over because he slept every Sunday. Nobody seemed to mind. At 82 years old he surely had, at least, one foot already inside the Pearly Gates and was just waiting to step on in with the other. There was no sin upon him now. He was sanctified holy. As for his sleeping, Mrs. Stimpson always stopped him if he started to make loud noises. Her dignified devotion to her husband was classical. His respect for her? Absolute.
Each and every Sunday our Pastor wore the same long black coat. On its front were sewn seven carefully placed, bone carved, white buttons. The fastening straps for these buttons were tanned leather and when coupled together they formed to make the shape of a holy cross. Five buttons straight up and down and one over each of his breasts brought that cross to life and left no doubt as to his profession. With his coat on, he walked behind the Lord with every step he took. This, pitch black as night, long coat contrasted sharply against the plain white, high-collared shirt he wore but, altogether they seemed to emphasize a certain sincere character in his presentation. His white eyebrows were thick, like those on men of wisdom, and they pointed like God’s own fingers to the Heavens. His hair was long, white, and wavy and Moses, himself, could not have looked more Godly. He wore silver buckled boots that were polished shiny black and when he stomped one of them on that Trinity United Church of God floor men, and women alike took notice. His hat, wide, tall, and also black, had a history of being waved around his head, thrown up into the air, and slammed down onto the ground all within the first five minutes of an inspiring outdoor revival.
The Preacher continued with his sermon on redemption and he paid no attention to the sounds of a baby whimpering softly in the back pew. He knew he would soon have its consideration. He made no particular observance to the increasing sounds of hoof beats that were being made from the many horses now heard charging down through the narrow road that led to our church.
Drew and I both sat up when we heard the commotion and we looked at each other for the longest with confused expressions. The horses came closer, still, and we waited for them to pass by but they didn’t. We listened as a wagon was rolled up to the church’s side and its brake was applied. We heard men dismount their horses and start up the steps. The rattle of spurs and the kicking of boot heels on the lined, wooden planks of the Trinity’s front porch easily chased away, with their dominating sound, any God sent message that we may have been studying.
I knew the boots were coming in. Drew knew they were coming in. It wasn’t the kind of Sunday saunter that would just stop outside your door, but the Preacher must have thought so because he kept on spewing out that fire and brimstone like there would be no tomorrow. He kept on talking like he couldn’t be stopped. He wouldn’t be stopped. He was charged by the Lord to get his message out before any mortal man could halt him.
“Isaiah 29:15 says, Woe unto them that seek deep to hide their counsel from the Lord, and their works are in the dark, and they say, who sees us? And who knows us? The Lord knows,” he said quietly.
The doors of the church flew open! The bright sunshine slipped across the altar and held it in an eerie glow. No one was scared. These men weren’t robbers, they were lawmen. United States Marshals. They strode forcefully into the church carried, it seemed, on rays of sunshine that cascaded across the floor in long, bright illuminating sheets of light. They blinded you if you tried to look directly at them. Only if the men blocked out the sun with their big hats could you hope to see their faces. As long as I live I will never forget those hats. They were wide and banded, high dollar chapeaus. They were not like a weather-beaten trail hat that you might slap against your thigh to knock the dust off. These were put up hats that were only worn on special occasions. It only took a few, brief seconds for all of the men to enter the church but once inside everything they did seemed to move at a slower pace. Simple steps, simple actions, and simple movements all took for eternity to complete. I could hear them talking to each other and to the congregation and telling everyone to stay seated and be calm. They all had big guns and badges to go with their big hats and I remember thinking that these men were going to get what they came for.
At first, nobody knew what that was. They just stood there, two by the door, two by the Preacher, and four looking over the flock like an eagle getting ready to snatch a snake from its nest. I looked for daddy where he always sat. His place in the church was always on the second to the front left pew but at first, I didn’t see him there. I strained again to see him riding low in his seat. He saw me looking at him and we looked into each other’s eyes for a moment that will last forever in my mind. I could see deep into his eyes. I saw deeper than I had ever seen before. He didn’t show a scared or pitiful look on his face but more of a shocked look. He was like a squirrel that heard the click of the gun but could only escape the shot for so long. That one missed. He wondered if he would hear the next click. He sat there like that squirrel, waiting to be hit. Too shocked to move, he didn’t know which way to run. It was then that one of the men in big hats spotted my father and reached for him. He slumped back even deeper in his pew when the man, alone, grabbed him but when eight big hands were laid upon him he came up quick.
“Daddy!” I yelled and jumped up, but Mama held on tight to my jacket. I had to speak from where I stood. “Daddy, what’s wrong? What’s happening, Mama? What do they want with daddy?”
Mama didn’t say anything, she just held on tight to me.
“Take your hands off of me, Sir. Who are you,” my father demanded. “This is my church. We’re having church here. Have you no decency? Unhand me you, you Yankee! You wretched Yankees! Release me, I say.” Daddy screamed and fought with the Marshals all the way out the door. He kicked and struggled until they finally chained him down on that wagon.
He wasn’t used to being treated that way. He was the one in the habit of giving out the orders to have men placed in chains. When he spoke most people reacted to his words with patronizing respect. I knew my daddy liked people to show this type of discipline towards him. He expected it. He didn’t like being the hunted prey in the cage. Not after he had played the hunter for so long.
The biggest of the men in big hats walked over to the Preacher and apologized for the disturbance. He explained that he was dispatched directly from the Governor in Nashville to return my daddy to Clarksville where he would be held on Federal charges. He said my father would be in the Montgomery County Court on the day after tomorrow and we could see him then. The local, County Constable was also there but, he didn’t say anything until after the US Marshals were gone. Only then did he speak. He told us that we could finish with our sermon now that all the excitement was over. Upon delivering this message, he walked down the aisle cradling his shotgun in his arms. He exited through the church doors much the very same way he came in but, those doors didn’t look the same after he was gone. The light wasn’t quite so bright. The air was not as crisp. Nothing looked the same anymore.
The elders huddled together with the Preacher by the altar and I walked to the window to see my daddy carried up the hollow on that big flat wagon. Stripped of his honor and put on public display for crimes unbeknownst to Drew or me, he hung his head in shame.
Drew was crying and asked Mama why they took him away like that.
“I don’t know, child. We’ll have to wait and see.” Mama was crying, too. Not like if it were Drew kicking and screaming and losing his breath but hers were little tears that welled up big in her eyes and, at once, flowed in one big drop down her cheek. These tears came from deep inside Mama. I knew that something was bad wrong. I had a feeling that she knew what it was but wasn’t telling.
Everyone in the church was stunned by the events. So much so, that the Preacher dismissed us early. His sermon on redemption was cut short by the interruption, he explained. He added that he hoped he had hit his mark. As we filed outside nobody said much of anything. Almost everyone simply got up on their wagons and left.
As we walked to our team of mules, two of Mama’s friends came by and told her they would come sit with her if she wanted them to. Their sincerity was genuine. I could tell. It was not like the bravado that was expected of men from other men. The women had only their dignity to maintain. This they did very well in the face of a world ruled by tyrants that they also called husbands. Mama told each of them that we would be alright and thanked them for their kindness. On the way home the only sound heard from the woods was Drew’s sniffling and a mule team pulling a wagon down an old country road.
End of Chapter 1.
Potneckers, you’ve just read Chapter 1 of The Excitement. It is a story based on fact from Dover’s history. If you liked it you can read Chapter 2 here next week. Thank you.
In a solemn graveside ceremony held yesterday, Veteran’s Day, on the grounds of the Dover First Christian Church cemetery, local historian Dan Griggs led a Civil War Honor Guard, The Civil War Singers, actors, widows, musicians, and citizens in paying tribute to 17 previously “unknown” soldiers who died during the Battle of Fort Donelson and were buried here in a mass grave over 150 years ago.
Click on the link below to see the splendid and admirable story as covered by Nashville’s WSMV TV Channel 4 News Reporter Dennis Ferrier.
For scores of years historians have speculated and sought to find the actual whereabouts of these fallen and forgotten men but Dan Griggs, using metal detectors, dowsing rods, probes, and a lifelong passion for history, finally discovered their remains in 2007. It then took another 7 years to put together all of the proper documentation needed to identify these 16 enlisted men and 1 Commissioned Officer. It may have taken 151 years to have a proper remembrance but, as local, beloved historian Dan Griggs appropriately concludes, “God takes care of those who are worthy”.
Martha Parker commented on her Facebook page the following:
As was appropriate, Dan Griggs was featured in this report. An excerpt from Dan Bailey’s comments was also included. Eva Linda Hays could be heard playing “Amazing Grace” on the harmonica. I was pleased that The Civil War Singers were mentioned.
Standing on their part of the hillside on a cold day, much like the day they fell, Dan Griggs clearly read the names of these fallen heroes and Reverend Dan Bailey gave a sobering eulogy to honor the Americans, one and all. These men are now forever remembered as each of their names is inscribed on a massive headstone at the site of their final resting place.
Wearing their full regalia, many dedicated Stewart Countians were also depicted in this story as they paid tribute to honor those now remembered men who gave the “last full measure of devotion” for their cause.
This is a brilliant synopsis of the Battle of Fort Donelson. If you have not seen this video I encourage you to watch it and become more educated on this historical subject that we all, as Stewart Countians, have in common.
Thank you, Command Combat, for an excellent report and a slight correction provided in the comments of the video.
Click on the link in the header at the top of the page to look at Page Two of PNN.
PNN goes National, Global, and Geopolitical. For a brief time this blurb will be up to remind our readers to check all the pages of PNN for stories that you might find relevant and interesting. There may be entertainment or informational videos on Page Two, it could be anything. It could be YOUR submissions! PNN is evolving and expanding. Thank you for your patience as I come to fully understand the power of PNN and the proper placement of it’s stories.
Is it a good thing?
Criticism, as defined in the dictionary, is the art of analyzing and evaluating the quality of one’s “work”. It is the act of passing judgment as to the merits of the “work”.
Is it ever useful or fitting to judge something in an unflattering way? Is it ever useful or fitting to artfully analyze or evaluate a performance, a writing, or any piece of “work”?
What does the Bible say about criticism?
First of all, Matthew 7:1 says:
Judge not, that ye be not judged.
If I point out the faults in my brother, then my brother may find the same faults in me and I must be wary of that. There is a fine line between the act of “judging” and the art of “criticizing”.
Judging someone only points fingers without offering solutions. Constructive criticism “polishes” that lump of coal and, eventually, if worked hard enough, shines it to the luster of a diamond. If I am constructively criticized, in truth and helpfulness, I become a better person.
Proverbs 27:6 says:
Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.
This means we can learn more from a friend who, in earnest, tells us the harsh truth than we can learn from an enemy who tells us what we want to hear. The friend’s chastising can be helpful while the enemy’s encouragement is hurtful.
Ephesians 4:15 says:
But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.
Perhaps the New International Version of the Bible makes this verse easier to understand.
In the NIV Ephesians 4:15 translates:
Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.
Ephesians 4:14 tells us WHY we should speak truthfully and within a foundation of love:
That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.
So, we learn, there is a difference between “judgement” and “criticism”. But beyond that, there is also a division in “criticism”. When defining our criticism we must ask ourselves, do we analyze and evaluate the faults we see in someone’s work because we want to destroy that work or because we want to make that work stronger? Are we judging them or are we trying to help them? Good criticism, based on truth and coming from the heart, is humble and hopes only for a measure of success to be gained from it’s constructive guidance.
Many times criticism is taken as being snooty, snobbish, egotistical, and even cold-hearted but this is sometimes just an excuse for ignoring it’s value. It is seen by those who refuse to accept it and to learn from it as being judgmental and, therefore, it is easily discarded.
Proverbs 18:13 says:
He that answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame unto him.
The Bible says that healthy criticism MUST BE based on truth. Negligent criticism is only gossip and usually ends up embarrassing the critic.
There is a VERY BIG difference between criticizing someone to help them versus having a “critical spirit” that is NEVER satisfied.
Galatians 5:22 says:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, and faith.
Criticism should always be grounded in the truth. Criticism should always provide a door for the object of it’s critique to pass through to become better.
Praise the Lord.
The Bible, the word of God, is our handbook to salvation. It is the peace that passes all understanding. Thank you for sharing it with PNN today.
Are you “sanctified holy”? What does it mean to be, “sanctified holy”?
Brother R.B. Dowd, may he rest in peace, was a former Pastor of the Long Creek Church of the Nazarene at Long Creek, TN. He introduced me to the phrase “sanctified holy” back in 1998. Since then, I have sought to learn just what it means to be “sanctified holy”.
Could I be “sanctified holy”? Could you, Dear Reader, be “sanctified holy”? Could anyone be?
Taken in the religious content, “sanctify” means: To set aside for sacred use, to purify.
“Holy” means: Belonging to, derived from, or associated with a divine power; sacred.
So, if “you” are sanctified holy it means that “you”, defining “you” as the body, the flesh, the mind, the spirit and your soul, have set “yourself” aside for sacred use ONLY by, and through, the divine power of God. That is, every part of “you” is set aside for God.
Taken in a generic content, “sanctification” means: “the state of proper functioning.” So, to sanctify something or someone means that we set that thing or that person apart for ONLY the use that was intended by its creator. It would mean that a pen is “sanctified” when it is only used to write. If you use a pen as a pointer it is no longer sanctified. Eyeglasses are “sanctified” only when worn to improve your vision. Your eyeglasses are not sanctified if they rest on your head as they are not being used for their intended purpose. In the religious sense, people are sanctified when they are used for the purpose according to God’s design.
If you are sanctified holy then you walk in the Spirit of the Lord every waking moment of your life.
Galatians 5:16 says,
This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.
So you can, Dear Reader, be “sanctified holy” but it is not as easy as it looks. There was only one perfect being and that was our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The only person that I have ever known to be even close to being sanctified holy was Brother R.B. Dowd. He lived every second of his life walking in the Spirit and sharing the gospel. God’s light was forever showing through him. He showed me that it could be done, if you worked at it unceasingly.
Romans 12:1 says,
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Praise the Lord.
The Bible, the word of God, is our handbook to salvation. It is the peace that passes all understanding. Thank you for sharing it with PNN today.
Editor’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure; I am not sanctified holy. I try to be and I work to be better almost all of the time as I try to help people and treat people fairly but there are times when I can’t hold my tongue or my pen. I am constantly asking God to help me with my struggle of brutally calling things as I see them rather than just rolling over and taking it like I did when I was younger. Back then, I sat blindly by and trusted man’s “authority”. I have learned that man’s authority is not always right. God tells me that it is sometimes better to point out a mistake rather than let it turn into something worse. I used to hold my tongue but now, in my older age, I have learned that if you don’t take up for yourself you will get run over and silence only empowers, even more, those that don’t give a darn about anybody but themselves.
As I have mentioned here before, I don’t hold a monopoly on the truth, just my understanding of it. I always ask for people to correct me if they believe I have spoken incorrectly. I am always open to hearing the other side of the argument. I am grateful that PNN is beginning to get comments after each story. I encourage everyone to go back and read them and join in the discussion.
DATELINE: Dover, TN 10/17/2014
From the opening kick-off until the final whistle, the SCHS Football Rebels played with the passion, speed, and intensity that we’ve been looking for all season and defeated the visiting and highly ranked Lewis County Panthers tonight 26-15 in front of an appreciative and adoring home crowd. The Rebels tasted sweet victory for the second time this year.
The young men played and were coached as if a fire had been lit beneath them and whipped the Panthers in every facet of the game.
Led by Linebacker Ryan Pinkowski, Lewis County could do nothing on offense and were lucky to get even 15 points against an aggressive, hard hitting, and tenacious Rebel defense.
With a superior ground game that chewed up minute after precious minute, the Rebels running backs Tobias Clark and Jeremy Waters followed an offensive line that fired off the ball play after play after play and pounded that Lewis County defense for all it was worth. The running backs hit the line hard, like a Mack truck, and punished every would-be tackler. They made certain that Lewis County would remember the Rebels.
QB Trey Wienk ran the ground control offense that Coach Finley is famous for and left nothing to chance as they gained first down after first down and when the Rebels scored late on a 4th and 1 at the goal line to put the game out of reach, they silenced, once and for all, those annoying cow bells emanating from the visiting side.
Left bloody and battered, the Lewis County players and coaches settled in for what surely will be a very long bus ride home.
The Rebels will celebrate tonight and they deserve it.
PNN would have liked to have seen this fire lit from game one and perhaps the Rebels could have gone to the State Playoffs, as some predicted, but better late than never and this is a win that the players, coaches, and fans can be proud of.
Confidence, attitude, and a noticeable intensity in Rebel eyes are what we saw tonight.
Remember from where you summoned up this intensity and motivation, Rebel players and Coaches. Bottle it, and then release it again next Friday night.
“God wants spiritual fruit, not religious nuts.”
Matthew 13:51, 52 says,
51 Jesus said to them, “Have you understood all these things?“ They answered, “Yes, Lord.”
52 He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”
Some parables are old and hard to understand but we must try to understand them and apply them to our lives today. Likewise, God says we must uncover new treasures and share new parables, as well.
Jesus made sure to ask his disciples, do you understand?
Why did Jesus make sure to ask if they understood? Because sometimes we might not immediately understand everything in front of us. Sometimes we come off as being nutty. If we don’t understand something we have to think about it, we have to talk about it, we have to study it more. Then, when we come to better understand the glory of our God, when the picture becomes clear, we will truly yield the spiritual fruits that He wants us to share with others.
Praise the Lord.
The Bible, the word of God, is our handbook to salvation. It is the peace that passes all understanding. Thank you for sharing it with PNN today.
The Houston County Fighting Irish 2014 football squad is a team to remember for all time. With stout determination and fearlessness they have battled all year to keep their numbers high but injuries have plagued them and their squad has dwindled to 14, barely above the scant 11 needed to field a team.
But this is not a story about the quantity of that number. This is a story about the quality of that number. What is left in the numbers of this 2014 Irish football team is a program that will be marked in history. These young student athletes play with the hearts of champions. These young men, and the school they represent, are the future and the strength of Houston County. They carry the mail for the County on Friday nights and they do it under a tremendous hardship.
They are 14 hearts of stone, 14 hearts of Irish green and gold. They come together, on Friday nights, against overwhelming odds to perform, to work, and to sacrifice. They endure this long season of hard knocks for their families and for their school. They withstand the fight against the 50-60 young men on the other side of the field every Friday night for their honor and for their pride and they do it for the nearly four score years of history making Irish teams that did it before them. But most of all they do it for themselves because these Houston Countians just won’t quit. In their hearts of green and white and gold they will not let their tradition die. Not on their watch.
Showing up, representing? It is now a green badge of honor that this team of Irish wear on game night. They are Fighting Irish survivors and they are models of true grit, unyielding endurance, and dogged tenacity.
They are the transition between feast and famine. They may be small in numbers and short on wins but they still share a common bond and a common connection with those heroic Irish teams of the past. They are hungry for another win. They sweat and bleed together from Monday through Thursday working to get one. They work out in the weight rooms during the winter and they run in the summer. They come together, all 14 of them now with their injured players, coaches, and legacy on certain, special Friday nights. In the fall of Houston County with a cool crispness in the air these giants of the gridiron continue a tradition of green Irish football pride. Its not just what they do, it is who they are. It is the true heart of green and white and gold all over.
We can see it from Potneck.
Many current Houston County citizens have stood on the Houston County fields of old and new and sweated and bled and gave their all for Irish green. Those Irish warriors of old are now called to return once more to the Friday night lights. Your young Irish players need you. On at least one Friday night this year, go and cheer loudly for your team. They will hear you. They fight the good fight for you, for your memory. Honor them now with your presence and your voices. Show them how proud you are of them for carrying your flag.
Rise up, 2014 Houston County Fighting Irish Football Team. You stand on the shoulders of champions and they will keep you strong.
Much honor and respect from Potneck to our southern neighbors in Houston County.