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.