The Excitement

Chapter 6

The Powers That Be  (Part 1)

Romans 2:5

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.

buffbrown1      brownbuffflight       twocards

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.

andymutinyB. 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.

riverdebris“Well, thank you, Opson.  I didn’t see it.” Lewis swam effortlessly the remaining fifty feet to the water’s edge.

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.”

longe“Get to the barn, Amos.”  Opson scowled under his breath.

“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)

RLB4

The Excitement

Chapter 5

The Turning

Isaiah 59:8

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.

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“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.

whipping-aunt-sally  NW0197

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.

imagesCACJJ6RB

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

RLB4

Ancient Knowledge

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, having the power of perception by the senses or a conscious, will be unable to understand this.  We can ALL understand this.  Even you, even me.

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.

RLB4

The Excitement

Chapter 4

Riverboat Days

Proverbs 20:29

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.

pile-pig-iron       Furnace4

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.

Ecclesiastes 11:1

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

RLB4