To read THE EXCITEMENT please go to the Menu and click on THE EXCITEMENT tab.
Do the same for THE BLACK DOLL.
The other tabs are for your enjoyment.
The Excitement deserves to have a finish. The fallen characters deserve to be vindicated. The evil ones, held accountable.
Looks like I’ve gotten myself into a different kind of work, for awhile. Lord willing, I’ll be back.
The Town With Mean Eyes, Part 3
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
After the whipping, the good people in Town went home. They had seen enough. The less tender-hearted casually mentioned the hangings, of whether, or not, they would come back tomorrow for them. They would all come back. Those ten dollar killers heard that Claiborne was paying 2 dollars more for one last job so, whether the good folks witnessed it or not, the spectacle would continue.
The store owners sold their shelves bare. Items that hadn’t sold in twenty years sold for double the price during the bedlam. With shelves empty, they locked their doors to watch the punishment safely and discreetly, from behind their curtains.
Enterprising and crafty entrepreneurs began manufacturing things to sell. Little wooden gallows with ropes, pony whips, and lawman badges were hastily made and quickly sold to satisfy the crowd’s insatiable desire to hold a portion of the chastisement in their hands.
The church goers were all split on sadness and guilt, hard justice or tender mercy.
Though hundreds watched, cheered, and finally, became appalled at the penalty imposed against fair-mindedness, all walked away as Brandon Elam gathered up his brother’s body.
The first part of Howard Claiborne’s plan to keep control of his Town was complete but, the Grand Finale was yet to come. He had to get everybody’s attention. It was expected of him. He wanted everybody to know he was doing his part to maintain the County’s peace. He owned the power to do that and he meant to use it.
Through Kentucky and on the way back home to Tennessee, Mose had been hearing about the uprising in Dover from as far back as Lone Oak. He heard a white man was being whipped to death and he kept hearing of a slave rebellion but, he knew that couldn’t be right. When did a rebellion rise up?
His good news about Jeremiah smiling and waving goodbye from the Illinois side of the Ohio River was shrouded in the darkness of murder and mass murder in Town.
One man’s justice, one person’s decree, changed our world.
Tomorrow at six o’clock my man, Hilton Jacobs, those two Shake Town preacher boys; Pastor Jubal and his fiery young Minister Malachai, a well-to-do businessman from Clarksville, Horace Smith, who nobody knew of or why he was here, and 12 malcontented slaves, many separately but, all summarily convicted of Conspiracy to Rebellion by Judge Virgil Kaney, would be hung in the Town Square. Howard Claiborne would supervise it.
There would be no appeal.
This was the situation Mose came home to late Thursday night. Buck was stacking wood for a fire and I was driving the mules and the wagon into the barn when the dogs started barking. They let us know somebody was coming back down the trail. It was Mose, come hurrying. I told him the news. Luke Elam was already dead and they meant to kill 16 more tomorrow, including Hilton.
Mose just sat down. He didn’t say anything. In less than one week our lives had gone from couldn’t have been any better to couldn’t have been any worse. Old Mose finally spoke and said he would go to Town tomorrow, to try and see Hilton. Buck said he would watch guard with me at the farm and went to unhitch the livestock from the wagon. Mose went with him. They both knew it needed to be done. They didn’t say anything, they just did it. They took to each other like two old mules. They were just going through the motions.
I wouldn’t be going back to Town tomorrow. I would wait for what the Town would send me. I couldn’t watch the death of my man and I sure couldn’t watch it with people cheering. Christian people are supposed to treat each other better than that.
Mammy Jess went home. She held me with a stronger embrace and a sadder smile than from the morning before. She hugged me hard enough for two and fought back her tears.
My young boys slept well that night. I didn’t tell them their daddy wasn’t ever coming home. If I remember right I only slept for a little while that whole night of knowing what was about to happen. In my short sleep, I dreamed about Hilton. I dreamed I was old and I found him again. I dreamed we were both old and we were happy together. I knew that dream was a lie but I made myself believe it.
Woe to those who scheme iniquity, who work out evil on their beds! When morning comes, they do it, for it is in the power of their hands.
“Now, that wasn’t so bad was it, Virgil? After tomorrow, it will all be over. Everything can get back to normal without any more threat of a blasted rebellion. You protected our families, Virgil. You did a great service for this County and for our Town. You will always be remembered for how you helped to stop the rebellion and the indiscriminate killing of white people from here to Kentucky. The people are happy again, Virgil.” Howard Claiborne raised his glass and drank to Virgil Kaney. Thomas Opson, obligingly, joined in.
Virgil nodded, frowned a smile, and drank to himself. He wondered if all of these men really needed to die. He wondered if it would all add up, in the end. He figured in his wife and his home, he added his mistress and his indiscretions, he calculated it was worth it.
Later on, at the end of his life, Virgil Kaney went a little bit bat-crazy. Nobody ever knew if he was in his right mind or not. He mumbled a lot in his old age. He told that Claiborne gave him $3,000.00 dollars for that “whipping and hanging ruling”. If it was a lie he told it! He said it was his normal poker game cut for breaking a man. Nobody disputed him.
Howard Claiborne told Thomas Opson that he had one last job for him to complete before his farm could be free and clear of all liens held against it. Opson had one full day, he said, Friday, December 5th, 1856 to march as many furnace slaves as possible to the center of the county seat. Get them there as early and as expediently as workable but, before six o’clock in the evening, he demanded.
Thomas Opson sent mounted riders out before the break of dawn to every Iron Furnace in the County. They meant to force march, immediately, every slave man, slave-woman, and slave child, even if laying in their mama’s arms, to Dover to see the end of the rebellion.
It was wet and snowy throughout the County on that December Friday morning. The ground wasn’t yet cold enough or hard enough for any of the frozen flakes to make up on it but, before too much longer, it would be. An icy fog hung in the air that was thick enough to cut and the temperature dropped all day.
Muddy roads leading away from the Eclipse, the LaGrange, the Bear Spring, the Carlisle, and the Iron Mountain Furnaces were full of slaves trudging, sloshing, and enduring their way towards the center of Town. The Saline, the Bellwood, and the Cross Creek Furnaces each sent their slaves on a long walk with a ferry ride. The distant Rough and Ready slaves trekked, mostly, along the cold river road from Cumberland City. They barely made it in time for the excitement but, not to worry, Mr. Claiborne wouldn’t start it without them.
Dover is a hilltop Town. No matter how you approach it you will find yourself going uphill to get there. Those ferried, furnace slaves marched up the hill from the river. Those coming from the south marched up the hill from Lick Creek and those coming from the west were marched up the hill to Main Street to make a grand entrance into Town. They all came up together at the top of the bluff to witness the devil’s site in the square.
One hundred torches illuminated the county seat from every nook, every corner, every crook, and cranny. Even though it wasn’t yet dark, they all burned brightly in circling clusters of light. Smoke hung thick in the air and every slave stood helplessly where they were in the middle of Town and facing a ten man, freshly built, hanging gallows. Trees on either side of the gallows had three ropes each hanging from them to complete the mass misjudgment. All of the other trees in Town had people filling their branches the normal way, to get a better view. A large bonfire was burning so hot near the front of the prisoners that numbing cold quickly turned to beady sweat for the mass of humanity forced to stand, almost, on top of it.
Local citizens, as well as those from surrounding Counties, stood outside the circle of captives and they easily matched their count. Along with 500 riders, the total number of people present and gathering in the unholy square swelled to nearly 3,000. All of them waiting for Howard Claiborne’s show to begin.
He was like Julius Caesar in the Roman Coliseum.
By the time the Cumberland City Rough and Ready slaves were brought into Town, all of those 500 two-dollar gauchos were back. Their dirty guns lined the three streets coming into Town and they stretched fifty long on both sides. Howard Claiborne later admitted that the $1,000.00 he paid for the “hanging riders” was the best money he ever spent. He would remember that scene in Town for the rest of his life, he said. The people appreciated it, he boasted.
One thousand furnace slaves were herded into the Town Square in the late afternoon of December 5th, 1856. They were force marched there to witness the quelling of a rebellion. It was a rebellion that most of them knew nothing about. They were all, virtually, dirt poor and understood only one thing. Hard work stops the whip from coming.
Still, they stood there, in the mud and the cold, waiting for history to unfold.
For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.
Friday, December 5th, 1856.
Samuel woke up early that morning and said he would go on a quail hunt to get supper. He said he thought that would be one less worry for his daddy when he got back home.
That morning, for the first time, I saw a young man in my son. He surprised me outside by the wagon where Mose and Buck were hitching up the mules. I didn’t think he heard us talking about what was happening in Town but, I was wrong.
I thought he took his rifle and the dogs and headed into the trails because that was what I expected him to do. My mind was so fixed on what Mose would say to Hilton if he had the chance, that I forgot to notice what was going on around me. I was relieved that Samuel was going out hunting for supper. I didn’t want to have to tell him about his daddy that morning. I was hoping against hope that this was all a bad dream and Hilton would be coming home soon. I knew it was a false hope. Luke Elam’s cold body proved that to me.
I gave Mose a note to give to Hilton if he could. What do you say in a short note to the love of your life when you know they are about to die? I couldn’t write a book even though I wanted to. What could I say? It would never be enough. I wrote one simple line.
“When love is love, baby.” I sent that note by Mose to hand deliver to my man.
Mose made the hard drive to Dover with a heavy heart. I didn’t know and he didn’t know or suspect that he had a stowaway hiding in the side box of the wagon. Samuel had secretly removed the bridals, the martingale, and the remaining gear from the compartment and climbed inside. He reclosed the lid on top of himself and didn’t make a sound throughout the whole ride. Mose never even thought to look for a passenger because he was driving those mules harder to Town than ever before. He pushed them so hard he was just before hurting them. He wasn’t meaning to work them so hard but, he did. They gave him all they had as if they knew Mose had to get somewhere fast.
He only stopped one time.
Once the load passed the Great Western Mose bore down and he didn’t let up on those reins until they got to the bottoms past Gatlin Point road. There, he pulled the mules over for a short rest. He sat on the wagon’s seat for the longest time, with his head down. Mose was a strong man and he never showed much emotion. When he got down from his seat he walked aimlessly away stumbling, almost, from the wagon. He made his way toward the bank of a tobacco road. He collapsed where he stood. He just laid up on that hill like a little baby and cried so much the tears got mixed with leaves on the cheeks of his face. He cried right by that old road and the sticks from the ground got in his mouth. He moaned and cried until the sound of an owl screeching in the trees made him raise his head to look. He got up, brushed himself off, and pulled himself back onto the wagon. He was halfway slumped over for awhile, driving the short-rested team ever forward.
As Mose got closer to the excitement, he sat up straighter. He tightened up his coat and his hat, he wiped himself off, and he became more determined than ever to finish his sad journey.
Mose parked the wagon behind the new Elam house on the East side of Town and hurried inside. Brandon was glad to see him and had calculated that he would be there. On the expectation’s of Mose’s arrival, he and Judith made arrangements with two of the Deputies to allow Hilton to have a male visitor that afternoon. More than just her friend, Judith now owed Elly a return favor for her man and she meant to pay for it in a big way. The bribe fee for Mose to get into the cell with Hilton was 100 dollars for five minutes. Judith instructed Brandon to pay 1000 dollars for fifty minutes. She wanted more but the Deputies cut her off. They took her money for 15 minutes but, in the end, Mose didn’t even get 10.
Samuel had never seen such a sight. He heard it all outside the box first coming into Town. There were so many people, so many horses. Everybody and their rigs were moving in all different directions around him. He was more than a little scared. He saw crowds of people everywhere. They were playing games, they were having picnics, they were wrestling and racing horses. Young boys his age were all climbing trees in the Town to get a better view of whatever was about to happen. Samuel jumped out of his hiding place and brushed himself off like nothing had happened. He climbed himself up in the big Oak tree beside the Elam home. He just watched. It was like purgatory.
Samuel saw the hangman’s gallows. Up in the tree, he could see everything. He saw the gallows and he saw the hanging trees on either side of the gallows that also had ropes swinging from them. He watched the hundreds of slaves gathered in the middle of the Town Square as they swayed like the tide in waves, back and forth. The smoke and the horses driving them, incessantly, back toward the center of the Square. He was amazed at the size of the crowds all around the Town and the multitudes of men surrounding the jail. They were all cheering some hidden event that was happening there every few minutes. He prayed to God that his daddy wasn’t in that jail and one of those ropes wasn’t meant for him but, he was a smart young man. From what he had already heard and put together, he knew better. He wished he had never snuck on that damn wagon and come to Town.
Mose and Brandon set out from the house and headed toward the jail. Samuel watched but lost them in the crowd. He found them again near the doorway. He saw Brandon say and hand something to the deputy standing guard outside the door and Mose went inside.
“You got 15 minutes, boy.” That was all the soft skinned boy deputy told the 60-year-old man Mose.
Mose walked over to Hilton and took his hands. “It’s good to see you, Mose,” Hilton said and he smiled into Mose’s eyes. Mose didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to cry again. He just smiled back at Hilton with watery eyes. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the note that Elly had given him to pass to Hilton.
“Elly sent this,” Mose said.
Hilton held the note in his hands for a long time, looking at it, thinking about it. He tenderly caressed and softly rubbed and pressed his fingers over the charcoal impressions that Elly had set down on the paper. He kissed the paper and held it lightly in his hands. He said a prayer that only God heard and a tear of sadness fell from his eye and landed on the note. He sat the note down and wrote his reply on the back, “It’s you and me.”
Hilton gave the note back to Mose. “Thank you, Mose, for returning this to my wife. It will be all she has left of me. Watch out for my boys, Mose. I know you will. Teach them, Mose. That is the most important thing. Teach them everything you know. Send them away, if you have to, from this mean Town. They must learn all they can. It will be their best chance of making it in this country. Everything will be against them. I meant to teach them how to survive in this new land we have. A fine example I turned out to be.”
“You taught them well, Hilton. You taught us all well. I won’t let you down. I’ll see to your boys until I take my last breath. I’ll watch over Elly,” Hilton interrupted Mose.
“Elly is a strong, spirit-filled woman, Mose. You tell her that someday she must move on from me. She’ll need help raising those boys of mine and I know that. When that day comes Mose, you help her with that decision. She’s got to move on. I’ll see her again, over Jordan but, in this life, she’s got to do what she’s got to do to survive and to feed those boys.”
This time Mose interrupted Hilton.
“Your boys won’t ever go hungry, Hilton, not so long as I have a breath in me. As God is my witness that will never happen! Don’t you worry about your boys, Hilton.”
“I won’t, Mose. I know your word is true. I want you to tell Elly and my boys that I love them and that I said goodbye and that my thoughts were on all of them. I appreciate that, Mose. The chance to say goodbye. You tell Judith that Luke said to tell her goodbye. He told me that. Tell my babies I said goodbye. Tell them I love them.
“Time’s up boy,” the child deputy barked at Mose.
“God bless you, Mose.”
“God bless you, Hilton.”
Samuel saw Mose step from the jail not long after he went in and he watched as both he and Brandon now made their way back through the crowd toward the house.
We’re working through Part 3, Potneckers, and the end of Chapter 8.
Thanks to everyone for your interest.
The Town With Mean Eyes, Part 2
For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.
I don’t think I slept one minute that night Hilton didn’t come home. I laid in the bed with my boys near me and I held them close to my chest. All through that long night, I kept our three souls together as tight as I could. I needed to keep us close. I needed to feel the warmth of their skins on mine. I needed to feel their safety even if I couldn’t feel my own. I watched and listened to every breath they took and whether it was inside the house or out, I was aware of every little thing that made a sound.
Buck Porter made a bed of straw and blankets on the floor just inside the front door and he slept there. He laid to where nobody could come through the door without stepping over him. He kept his front hand on the wooden stock of a shotgun and his backside up against that door all night. He slept very little, from what I could tell. He puffed up several times throughout the night surveying every possible angle to the outside. Every now and again the moonlight reflected steel in the whites of Buck Porter’s eyes. I could see it as he canvassed back and forth, across the dark landscapes of our home. He stared with eyes that were used to searching through the night. He stared with eyes that knew what he was looking for.
Mose was still gone far away to Illinois with Jeremiah. I knew he wouldn’t be back until late Thursday night or early Friday morning, Lord willing. This had caught us all at a bad time. With Hilton and Mose around, we always had two good men on or near the farm. I felt safe like that. Now, with both of them gone, a runaway, Buck Porter, was the only man left to protect us. Due to his situation, it was necessary and best for him to stay out of sight. The poor man had been trying to find his family for four years and this was his welcome home. I wouldn’t have expected him to fight. He didn’t owe us anything. But, if anything did come up or if some stray evil doin’ riders did happen along, I got the feeling that Buck Porter was here for the fight. From what I heard and how he was acting, I didn’t see him backing up from anybody.
If it had been any other man than Buck Porter I wouldn’t have left my boys with them but, I had no choice. I could tell Buck was a good man. He cried when I told him about his wife, as I knew her, about her funeral, and where she was buried. He said he wanted to start off this morning like he started off every morning, with a Prayer to find his wife and his son. He said he would soon find his wife and that prayer would be answered. He prayed for his son, Jeremiah, and for Mose’s safety. He prayed I would find Hilton. He prayed for me and my boys. He finished praying and he said he felt like this was his home.
He spoke from his heart.
Samuel took right to Buck and hugged him three times that morning for his help and for who he was. He kept calling him, “Jeremiah’s Daddy” and it seemed to help ease Buck through the pain of losing his only beloved. I took that as a good sign and trusted him.
I needed his help. I knew I needed it to protect my children. I would need to see them safe before I could rescue my man. If I could just see Hilton if I could just talk to him, he would tell me everything would be alright. I needed to hear him say that. I needed to hear him say that alright day would come. I could make it till then.
Cedar Pond was just a quarter mile up the hill towards Kentucky so I had Samuel run up there early, even before the sun was all the way up and get Mammy Jess to come sit with the baby. Buck was a fine man but, it had been a long time since Jeremiah was that little. I needed Mammy Jess to be with my youngest one. She came right back, almost before I knew it.
Buck and I were just finishing hitching the mules up to the wagon when she came hurrying back down the trail. Samuel towed in behind her. She knew Luke and Hilton were in the Dover Jail. She knew I needed to be going there. She was our Mammy and I trusted her with my children and I trusted her with my life. Mammy Jess was out of breath when she came into the house but, she sat down right next to the baby. She already knew where everything was so I told her the baby was fed and I would be going alone into Town to see about Hilton. I hoped to be back before nightfall but, it could be later, I told her. Buck would take Samuel fishing over the hill past Cedar Pond and down into the long hollow towards the Kentucky bottoms. It was a good 3 miles down to the bottoms through the long hollow but, once they reached there they would be 3 miles into Kentucky and hidden safely away from the riders.
Mammy Jess smiled a sad smile trying to encourage me and she hugged me hard saying the babies would be fine with her. She said not to worry about them and she would look for me and Hilton when she saw us coming. Everything would be alright here, she promised. I knew, for her part, it would be.
Buck and Samuel set out for the backcountry river bottoms of Kentucky and I set out for Dover. It wasn’t much past the sun being up when I passed the Great Western. It was also about that time when the first bunch of spirited riders raced by me. There were four or five of them, coming from the north, and they were making a hard drive towards Dover. I kept my animal’s pace steady and true and by the time I reached the west side of the outskirts of Town at least three more packs of those wild riders had dusted past me without so much as a slowdown. I didn’t know who they were or what they were after but it gave me a scared, anxious feeling inside. I noticed more and more of them as I got closer to Dover. The grotesque number of those horses and riders showing out for one another made the Town look like a circus show. Horses were everywhere, spilling out of the streets and trails on all sides. They were bursting at the seams and their riders were wreaking havoc on the compass of the county, the center square.
I tried to control my team and steer them towards the Court House but, all I could see, all I could feel were the sounds and flarings of horse nostrils and ears and the push of horse flesh all around me. The pressing of the sweat of a hundred steeds, nags, and ponies packed up against me and pushed me into the sway of the Town and it swallowed me whole. They pushed me back and they threw me forward, they lifted me, sometimes, off the ground. The multitude of men seemed not to see me, or worse, not even to care. They cavalierly bucked their mounts up on hind legs in a show of unbridled and unharnessed power. It was no safe place for a woman in a mule wagon.
As I worked to hold my spot in the road and get closer to the Court House, the horses around me began to ground into my stalwarts, Doc and Dave. They started to bite my boys and were kicking them. They bumped into them and banged them hard and spooked them up into a scared madness. I was trying to whip them off of us but, the abused equines crashed into the side boards of my wagon, cracking them with their weight. I was losing control. The wagon was being scooted sideways and trying to turn over. The mules would run to daylight if they could but, there was none they could see. We were at the mercy of the gathering horde.
Just as my mule team began to overwhelm me, just as they began to get away from me, Brandon Elam came out of nowhere, astride his horse, and jumped right over next to me on the wagon seat. He grabbed the reins from my hands.
“Hold on to me, Elly,” he yelled as he turned that team around on a hatpin. In an instant, he had us heading back out of Town and away from the mashing horse melee. Doc and Dave understood that they were being driven away from the danger, away from the distress, and they complied with the whip. They stampeded past the bigger animals still holding steadfast in their path.
“Are you alright?” Brandon asked me as we pulled down a somewhat more serene Church Street.
“Yes, I’m alright,” I answered. “Thank you, Brandon. I thought I could get through.”
“Judith has been here all night trying to see Luke and those evil bastards won’t let her see him,” Brandon spoke with a fight in his words. “I will take you to her and we will plan our action. Luke and Hilton are still in the Jail and no one can see them. There is a rumor that there will be a Court appearance for them this afternoon.”
Brandon guided Elly into the new home he and Luke now owned on the west side of Town. Judith Elam welcomed her in with a trembling hug and some news.
“We’ve just received word that Judge Kaney is having our men brought up from the jailhouse, Elly. It may be our only chance to see them. I’m afraid we must go back out into this wild, horse’s ass town.
Thanks to Howard Claiborne, we will have to fight our way over to the Court House. He put the word out in six counties and across two states that he would pay a 10 dollar gold piece to any, please excuse my language, half-cocked piss ant, still wet behind the ears bushwacking rider, with a borrowed horse. They have come here from the four corners of the earth just to roust out the slaves at the County’s Furnaces.” Judith Elam identified the mission of the newly expanded Committee of Safety.
She continued, unabridged. “These low-bred hired out-of-county gun hands have already spent five of their ten dollars getting drunk and now most of them are fighting and gambling over the other five. They stand between us and our men, Elly. That crooked Judge Virgil Kaney has been absent throughout the night. We have constantly been inquiring as to his whereabouts. Thomas Opson is in Town and in charge of this spectacle. He’s been on the River Boat side of the Dover Hotel all night long drinking and gambling. He told Brandon that Kaney was in Clarksville and unavailable until later this week but now it is announced he has suddenly appeared to hold court. Imagine that, Elly?”
“Brandon, shall we take the wagon?” Judith Elam was also on a mission.
“Yes,” Brandon answered. “We’ll take Hilton and Elly’s team. They are hitched up just outside. There is not a minute to spare. The Court will quickly say what it has to say and then it will close back down and nothing else will be settled. The particulars will high-tail it back out of Town just as fast as they came in and they’re hoping we won’t be there so, let’s go, now.”
We hurried back out to the wagon and the fear gripped me. Judith was trembling like she had already lost her man and it scared me. Was I going to lose my man, too? For the first time, holding Judith, I got scared for my man and I didn’t feel anything good about that trip over to the Court House. Brandon drove our wagon and mules straight through that side road full of hired, stinking horse flesh. If they had riders mounted, I didn’t know it. All I smelled was horse sweat and tanned leather. Every so often I whiffed a scent of cowardice in the air. Those ten dollar killers were cheap and plentiful but, we fought through all of them. Brandon parked us right up on those Court House steps and we were lifted through the doorway by the rush of people pushing in. They had been told the same news as us.
The prisoners were being brought up.
When we got into the Court Room where we could see what was going on it was like a mad house. There was no order. Everybody was standing up and talking and people were yelling back and forth across the room to one another. The windows were closed and a fire was burning in the stove but, it was still cold in there.
The side door at the front of the courtroom opened and Thomas Opson sashayed in. He busted through with eight of those hired riders. In a full show of force and protection, four of them took one side of the Judge’s Bench and four of them took the other side. Opson stood by his Chair.
“All Rise,” the Bailiff ordered, and said something else about the Judge as he hurried in.
I didn’t know what else he was saying. I didn’t care.
“Be seated,” the Judge quickly directed. He cut in so fast at the end of the bailiffs’ speech that you thought he somehow knew it was over.
“Bring in the prisoners,” he ordered.
All the men were brought in chained to one another. Luke and Hilton were chained together at the front of the line. Right behind them followed that famous underground negro preacher from over in Shake Town. His young preacher boy apprentice stood tall behind him. They were all in chains. There was one well-dressed negro in the line who looked to be caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He looked so sad. Eight other poor souls trailed at the end of the sad line of bondage. Their only guilt an enduring will to escape the indignity of forced slavery.
I hadn’t seen my man in chains in over ten years but, now it seemed like it was only yesterday. Those chains seemed to weigh heavy on Hilton. He thought he had put them out of his mind. We hoped we had outgrown them but Howard Claiborne’s law saw that they still fit. His law reminded us that these chains would always be just a keylock away from keeping us down. My man looked out to see me and he forced a smile and a nod in my direction. At first, it was all I got from him. It was all they allowed. Judith didn’t even get that. Luke was still groggy and moving slow with a bulging bruise on the side of his head. The blood draining from the wound was now dry and it stained his shirt. He tried to look around. We couldn’t tell if he was looking for Judith or just trying to figure out where he was. He was looking out of one squinting eye but, you could tell he wasn’t completely healed up. I don’t believe he ever saw her.
The Judge called Luke’s name. I don’t think Luke ever truly understood what was going on. He looked at the lawyer from Clarksville that was representing him and attempted to get his attention but they did not directly speak.
“In the case of Stewart County vs. Luke Elam, Docket Number 56-12-4. Mr. Elam, please rise. Count 1. You are charged with aiding and abetting escaped slaves. To wit, you feed them and clothe them, you aid them and help them along a trail north, through Kentucky. You secure their escape. Count 2. Conspiracy to Incite Rebellion. You have given these slaves hope. You’ve caused any reasonable man to believe that they would, of course, by any means, seek the freedom you describe. That is not how we conduct business around here, Mr. Elam and I would expect, since you are a local boy, that you should already know that. I’m glad your daddy isn’t here to see this,” the Judge was compelled to announce.
“Now, this Conspiracy to Rebel is a very serious charge, Elam. These eight deputies will swear that you led an attack on them in that hollow. How do you plead?”
“That’s not true!” Hilton interjected from behind Luke Elam. “He led no such…”, but, the COS man closest to him planted a rifle stock in his stomach. Hilton collapsed back down in his seat.
“No more outbursts in this Courtroom,” Kaney banged his gavel. “Plead, Elam!”
“Not guilty!” Luke Elam struggled to shout. “I demand to see the evidence against me. These accusations are baseless and without merit. We led no such rebellion. We were fishing.”
Luke Elam was cut off. “Enough of that, Mr. Elam,” the Judge disregarded. “The evidence against you is overwhelming. We have six COS riders that have sworn upon their oath that you tried to kill them!”
“We were only protecting ourselves from these vigilantes, Judge. They came in with guns blazing. We did not draw the first weapon. How was I threatening them?” Luke Elam argued.
“What do you have to say about that, Constable Opson?”
Thomas Opson stood up tall to address the Judge. “We had to fire warning shots, Judge. They were all fired into the air and I will say that. We noticed a child with them on the spring’s bank and any shots fired directly in the vicinity of the crowd was in defense of that child. We ALL saw that runaway slave, we have his evidence but, he disappeared into thin air. He was in close proximity to the child before we lost him and we felt like we needed to protect the child. We tried to protect the children everywhere we went yesterday. It was not our intent to harm any one of those little rascals, Judge, in the squashing of this rebellion.”
“Your honor, we haven’t even established any attack, as yet, by my client on anyone.” Luke’s counsel pleaded. “There was no crowd. I reject this notion that he is now leading a rebellion. I move to have that stricken from the Record.”
“Well, see here, Counselor.” the Judged swayed the Court’s focus to the young defense attorney, “We were having a Rebellion and your Client was caught right in the middle of it. What does that look like to you, Sir?”
“Your Honor, this Rebellion you speak of was of your own making and sprung up wherever your Committee Riders chose to spring it up,” the young lawyer from Clarksville nervously submitted. After clearing his throat, he continued. “My client wasn’t conspiring to incite a rebellion. The rebellion was incited upon him! They were fishing, Your Honor.”
“Where is the child? Where is the slave?” the Judge asked Opson.
“We don’t know, Judge. They disappeared. We brought the remnants of that runaway’s clothing to prove that me and these four, duly appointed and sworn, deputies before you will solemnly swear that they know what they saw.”
“It wasn’t a slave, Judge,” the informed lawyer from Clarksville adjudicated. “That man was a local. He had a farming accident and was in the process of returning to his quarters to change his clothes. They were afraid for the child, your Honor, as they were being shot at. The local hand took the young boy with him as he was, presumably, his own son. They disappeared around a well-hidden path, your Honor. There is no crime in going home. The COS riders knocked my client out cold before he could defend anything.”
“What of that, Opson? the Judge crossed.
“That’s crazy, Judge.” Opson was relaxed like he was talking to a friend. “He lunged at all of us. I didn’t know who was in danger the most. For a second, we all were. If we hadn’t of knocked him out, he could’ve gotten one of us, easily.”
“I’ve heard enough,” the Judge declared.
“Luke Elam, you are, hereby, found guilty of aiding and abetting slaves in a manner to strengthen them and free them to gain a great distance apart from their legal owner which is a Felony in the above-titled offense. You are, hereby, found guilty of Conspiracy of Rebellion which is a very serious offense also, Mr. Elam, and it, too, is a Felony made in the act of committing another Felony. That proves civil unrest in the face of a mob rebellion and that gets you a more severe punishment than this Court normally allows to dispense but, we are hesitant and mindful of the excitement of such a momentous occasion. We do not make this Judgement lightly and we do not expect it to be taken lightly. You are, hereby, Luke Elam, sentenced to 100 lashes at the stocks in the center of Town at 4 o’clock today, December 4th, 1856!”
“NO!” Judith Elam screamed and collapsed to the floor.”
“That’s a death sentence, Kaney! You can’t give him that! You will kill him, Kaney! What in the hell are you doing?” Brandon yelled across the tumult of the room.
“Silence that man or he will be held in contempt of Court! Arrest them ALL if ANY of them make another outburst.” the Judge held order and Brandon moved up by the lawyer.
My man looked at me and shook his head, no, telling me to stay calm.
“Luke Elam,” Kaney continued, “to coincide with the previous judgment of 100 lashes you are, hereby, additionally sentenced to one year in the County Jail.”
As shocked as we were, Judith was still fainting on the floor, Brandon was one step closer to the Judge’s neck, and the room resembled a county fair, I saw none of it. I heard nothing in it. I could only hear my man’s heart beating from across the room. He could feel mine, too. I saw only him and he saw only me. We locked ourselves together in an unbroken, protected sight. We held on to this moment in our minds for a long time. We held it way on up until the music of the callous courtroom calliope streamed back in, falling into our ears and filling us up with the voices of backwoods country death. It knocked us apart.
“Hilton Jacobs, you are, hereby, found guilty of aiding and abetting the escape of our slaves out of the State and guilty of conspiring to attack sworn deputies doing their job to stop you. You are sentenced to be hung by the neck until you are dead at 6 o’clock tomorrow night, Friday, December 5th, 1856. All of these other men are, hereby, found guilty of Conspiracy of Rebellion and sentenced to be hung by the neck until dead tomorrow at 6 o’clock. This Court is adjourned.”
No! NO! I wanted to scream and wail and curse this Town but Hilton locked his eyes on mine and told me to sit still be quiet. SHUT UP, you negro woman was something I did not want my husband to hear right now. We had precious seconds left to remember our life together. I didn’t know that at the time and sometimes, I’m glad I didn’t know it. In those slim seconds, I didn’t think about the separation to come, the loneliness, the pain, the distress that would follow. I only thought about the good times, the happy times. I thought about the grapevines and the Sunday mornings.
“All rise,” the Bailiff ordered.
The crowd got up but, we just sat there, stunned. The Judge slammed his books closed and jumped up out of his chair and away from the bench. Even with all the extra added protection, he was still aware that many did not approve of his decisions. He was more than a little nervous. That front side door opened back up and, right on cue, Kaney bailed through it. His robe was flowing wildly as he hustled by his riders. He snagged an agent’s spur on the way out and it spun the provocateur around backward before he could rip himself loose. The Judge left part of his robe on the floor.
I stood up, numb. What just happened? Hilton blew me a kiss and I tried to blow him one, too, but I couldn’t find my mouth. I was shocked, I was paralyzed.
After the ruling, our men were led back out of the Court House and down to the jail. Those riders just packed them up and took them all away. We had no way left to fight after that. They took our voice and our strength. It was the plan. Over time, they take away your soul.
Together, Judith Elam and I walked out the door of the judgment-hall. The sea parted and the multitudes divided and we walked straight through that mob with our heads held high. No one said anything until we left the room. Then, a mighty cheer rose up from inside the cold court. They were glad our men were dying. They were glad they had killed our way of life. It was a demon to them.
The loud cheer in the Court Room only preceded the booming cheer we heard on the square. All of those hoodwinkers who bet on the hanging of the negroes had won their five dollars back and they could go home in style.
Judith was tired of it all and had seen enough. She stood up on her wagon outside the Court House and in the middle of the Town square. From that vantage point, she was taller, she was higher up than anyone else in the street. After the loudest cheer, she screamed out at the poorly bred mass of men. They had no choice but to listen.
“I know you! I know all of you,” she bent their ears hard. “I know your mothers and your fathers. I’ve seen you on these streets and in our churches. I’ve seen you down by the river for food celebrations and in our shops. I buy and sell your tobacco, your cotton, and your clover. Don’t you realize what you are doing? You are cheering for the death of freedom. You are drunken on wine and mystery and most of you don’t even know why you are here.” She was berating the multitude. “The rest of you should be ashamed of yourselves. You are killing the finest among you and you are too drunk with stupidity to realize it and the saddest part of this whole ordeal is that I know ALL OF YOU!” she screamed. I know all of you,” she cried.
Judith Elam went home. They would not let her see her man. She did not want to see him whipped to death. She knew 100 lashes was a death sentence. They would not let her see her man so she went home.
“You watch out for my man, Elly,” Judith begged me before she left. “Make sure to give him that special prayer when he needs it the most. I’ve got to go home, Elly, and wait to see how they bring him to me.
“I will, Judith,” I said as I held her hand’s goodbye.
Beware that your hearts are not deceived and that you do not turn away and serve other gods and worship them.
Howard Claiborne waltzed into the jail to meet with Luke Elam. The meeting wouldn’t last long. Claiborne had other things to do and he would have his answer, either way, in just a few minutes.
“Just come to work for me, boy,” he extended. “I’ll buy the Great Western. We’ll run it my way. Nobody has to get whipped here today, son. Let’s do this for your father and for my friend. You’ve got a way out, boy. Take it.”
“I will not fight for slavery.” Luke stood. “I won’t work for you.”
Howard Claiborne drew his eyebrows tightly together and his eyes closed to a beady, smirky leer. He pursed his lips and took in a deep breath through his nose before he spoke.
“You think you are so righteous, don’t you, boy? There will always be slavery and you better get used to it. There will always be some kind of slavery in this world. The powerful people need it. It’s like a concoction they drink to survive. We will have our power, Elam. If not human slavery there will be debt slavery. In some way, men will be owned. Slavery? It’s just another word for power and it comes in many forms and many colors. There will always be owners and there will always be slaves.
You best decide which side of the chain you want to be on, Elam.”
With a lost smile, Claiborne added one final remark. “I do admire your conviction, boy. You are a Page, after all. I’ll tell Opson to go easy on you. We’ll get you through those 100 lashes and you can go home in a year. You’ll be all healed up by then. I can do that.”
Outside the cell room, Howard Claiborne spoke quietly to Thomas Opson. “Kill him at 50.” was all he said.
Brandon was fit to be tied. “Luke, I’m not going to let them do it. I will bring my rifle and Mackie James and as many men as it takes and we will stop this. I will not let them kill you, Luke. We will kill them first. What’s the difference? Why do they get to choose who lives and who dies? Why can’t we choose? We even have the truth and God on our side. Why do you have to die? Why do you have to be whipped? I’m not going to let it happen!”
Brandon Elam clenched as tight as he could his brother’s forearms through the bars of the Stewart County Jail. He clenched and spoke through his teeth with wild eyes begging for his brother’s approval.
Luke Elam sat on a stool in his cold cell. Brandon was on his knees, pleading. He held his brother tight. Hilton Jacobs watched from the next cell.
“Why can’t I just kill them?” Brandon Elam wanted to know.
“Because the Governor won’t see it that way, my precious brother. Thomas Opson and Howard Claiborne will always have the backing of the badge. No matter how many innocent people they kill, no matter how many lives they destroy, they will always have the backing of the law. If you kill them the next higher law will come. You can’t win.”
“But, we’ll get the people to stand with us, Luke! The people will stand with us and say this was wrong. We will say we had to stop it. We couldn’t just let you get whipped to death and 10 other men hung in a massacre. For God’s sake, Luke.”
“You ask too much of the people, Brandon. They must protect themselves but, most of all, they must protect their own children. That’s tough to do in this Town. There is always another Howard Claiborne. There is always another Thomas Opson. They are cheap men, easily bought, with no morals. Everyone has a petty tyrant like that in their lives. Someone they fear. The people will not come for us, Brandon. They can’t. They are very sorry but, they can’t. We are third on their list to help. We must understand this. Wheels turn slowly in this County. Justice comes in tear drops. It comes one hard cry after another. Someday, my brother, people will remember what happens here. It may take 50 years. It may take 100 years. If you die, too, my brother, our story will never be told. Keep yourself alive and remember well what happens here. You must tell it. You must tell our story. Help keep Hilton’s memory alive and help keep my memory alive. Remember the Great Western. Tell of her glory and tell of her sadness. You must tell the people how to make it better.”
Brandon Elam released the death grip he had on his brother’s arms. He saw the calmness in Luke’s face and it helped him to breathe. His brother had released him. He had set him free of guilt. He had absolved him from any vengeance against his death or against his killers. He told him to fight in a different way. It was a way that could not immediately be won but, he would win it, his brother assured. He would not kill Thomas Opson or Howard Claiborne today. Today, he would fight it his brother’s way. It was his last wishes. He would fight it by telling the story. He had to live to do that. He would tell the story first but, he swore to his brother after the story was told after the history was written, he could not make any guarantees about the two of them. I’ll get those bastards,” he promised.
“Time to go, Elam.” Thomas Opson slammed the cell open. “Just so you know, this is not personal, Elam. We just have a difference in personalities.”
Thomas Opson led Luke Elam through 500 people to the stocks in Town. He ripped the shirt off his back to reveal a lily white skin that had never seen the sun. He wrapped and tied his strong arms tightly around the higher stocks to where Luke had only inches to fall. He would expose his back fully to the whip.
Luke Elam remembered the first day he met his wife. She was so beautiful. She was such a hard worker. Judith Elam was the gift of his life. He remembered his wedding day. They were married on a summer’s day and he remembered they both had to go to the field to work that afternoon. He remembered their happiness and how they slept well that night, too tired for a celebration. He remembered every single birth date of his children. He remembered when his oldest boy was born. He was in the field and he had to come in. He remembered it was the best harvest that year they ever had. He remembered it was cold when his youngest boy was born and he had to keep a fire going in the house. He remembered that his wife made him keep that fire lit up well into April. It was the warmest he ever felt. He remembered the beautiful spring day that his daughter was born. The Azaleas were blooming red and white with bumble bees all around. The honeysuckle smelled so nice. She was such a blessing.
Luke remembered how when he was young and very sick his mama would spare no moment to nurse him back to health. He nearly died from the fever when he was six but, her work saved him. She brought him back to life with her love. She brought him back from the edge of death. She willed him back, many said and Luke knew this. He always swore that on that night when he was the sickest, he dreamed he was floating up high in his room. He looked down to see his mama praying over him. He didn’t know why she was so worried and haggard over him. He felt fine. He said he flew back down into his body so he could wake up and tell his mama he was okay. He loved his mama.
Luke remembered the first time he realized he would never be like his father. Cross Elam wanted to whip a slave just to show his son how it was done. He picked a slave he didn’t particularly like, Nester Steel, and made up a charge on him. He had Nester placed in the stocks down by the barn. He whipped him hard twice and handed Luke the whip. Luke was eleven.
Luke and Brandon’s older brother, Wicks Elam, had just been killed in the War. The War of 1812. Andy Jackson’s War. They say Wicks was a dead ringer for old man Cross, alike in every way and Cross didn’t just love his oldest boy, he worshiped him. Wicks Elam loved to whip slaves and Cross wanted Luke to be just like his brother. Luke Elam didn’t want to whip Nester Steel. He knew Nester hadn’t done anything. Even if he had done something, he still didn’t want to whip him.
His daddy screamed at him. “WHIP HIM!”
Luke whipped Nester Steel, hard, one time. As hard as an 11-year-old could. He was sorry for that every day for the rest of his life. He could never look Nester in the eye again after that because he was ashamed. For 35 years he felt ashamed. Finally, before old Mr. Nester died, Luke went to him, crying. He apologized for whipping him. He was so sorry, he confessed. He begged Nester for forgiveness. Nester gave it to him. He told him it was the lightest whip he ever took and Nester laughed about it. Still, Luke never got over it. He understood now that this was his atonement for whipping Nester Steel. He deserved it.
Luke remembered the time he and Brandon wanted to cook their mama a dinner because she took sick. They thought she worked too hard, so they wanted to help. They fished all day in a spot where the Crappie sat thick. They brought home all they could carry and cooked up so much fish that they ate it for two days. By the time the fish was gone, mama felt better. They had so much fun those two days, waiting on their mama. She sat up and ate fish with them and she let them wait on her. They all slept well that night and he remembered his mama’s happiness. He remembered his mama’s smile. He wanted to go to sleep now.
Elly remembered her promise to Judith. At first, she stood deep within the vaguely insensitive crowd as it watched a white man get whipped to death for aiding a negro. The people cheered at first. That was what they were supposed to do. But, as Thomas Opson kept whipping and yelling and Luke Elam kept dying, they didn’t seem to like it so much. The cheering stopped half-way through. Their mean eyes turned to eyes of shock and disbelief but, it was too late. Sighs of agony rose up from the crowd with every new snap of Opson’s bloody whip. Seventy-five lashes in and the crowd said, enough! But Thomas Opson was not finished. Disappointed that he couldn’t complete his task in fifty lashes as Howard Claiborne had instructed, he doubled up at the end. Instead of letting up to ensure at least a hopeful chance for survival, he whipped Luke Elam even harder.
Elly moved to the front of the line of stone hardened expressions to see Luke’s face. He was a good man. He had always done good and he was a God-fearing man. She knew he deserved better than this. She knew we all did. Elly was surprised at what she saw. Even at 50 lashes, Luke Elam still seemed to be smiling. His face was beautiful. He didn’t flinch with any of the leather slicings into his skin. He was at peace. She didn’t understand that. How could he not feel the pain? She thought he needed that prayer from Judith now. She moved as close to him as she could and began to pray. She mentioned his wife, she mentioned his boys, she mentioned his daughter. Elly saw Luke Elam open his eyes one last time. He looked directly at her and smiled. Then, he closed his eyes forever.
Is this how my man will die, Elly cried.
Brandon Elam did not go home. He watched every whip snap levied unto his brother and he noted it well. After it was over he gathered up his brother’s body. He washed it and he dressed it in white linens to be sent home to his wife, Judith. Elly rode home in the wagon with Luke’s sons and Luke body. They presented Luke Elam to Judith and then Elly drove her mules slowly to the ferry. She would go home now and wait for her man.
With the ancient is wisdom, and in length of days understanding.
Brandon Elam went to the jail to be with Hilton Jacobs.
“Luke is gone, Hilton.” He said to his friend.
“He led a life well-lived, a life well-remembered, and a life well-sacrificed. I hope I have sacrificed enough.” Hilton was speaking for all time now. “You remember me, Brandon. You remember me to my children and my wife.
We are of a different time, we are not meant for this time. We are brothers in arms but, only in God’s arms. This time of man is not right for us. It wasn’t right for me and Luke to get along. It wasn’t right for us to work together, not this time. If it were right it would be so. Those mean eyes are coming for me tonight. They will come for us all, eventually. You watch your back, Brandon Elam.”
“If not now, when, Hilton? When can we come together?” Brandon hoped against hope. “You and Luke proved for all time that it is meant for us to work together, to endure together. We need each other to survive, to get through, to reach the promised land.”
Brandon Elam understood the importance of his words. He knew it was just as important for him to say them as it was for Hilton to hear them. Brandon had to remember them.
“What you do and what you say here is no longer for the benefit of you and I. What you think or what I think about this does not matter. It is history now that you step into and it was history that we marched through today. What has happened and what will happen will be written down for the ages. These minutes are out of our hands now, Hilton. We can’t stop them from happening although God knows we have tried. You are now and forever going to be what you are, Hilton Jacobs, a strong and proud man. You always have been and you always will be. That is why you are loved and that is why you are martyred. That is why you will be remembered.
You have no quarrel with these men but, they mean to kill you. They mean to kill you and anyone else that gets in their way. They proved that today by killing Luke.
If God grant me the miracle of seeing another sunrise, I make this solemn promise to you, Hilton Jacobs, as God is my witness you will not be forgotten. I can’t stop this mob. My death would only follow Luke’s and precede yours. But, you believe this, Mr. Hilton, as you face history. I can’t help you now but I will help you forever. Your children’s children will call your name when they speak of courage. When they feel low or uninspired, if they become discouraged or distressed they will call on the memory of your name to lift them, to give them strength, and to guide them. Stand proud, Hilton Jacobs. Stand tall. You are the patriarch of heroes. You are the father of champions. History will take you now but, don’t feel cheated. You take history with you. You will be remembered, Hilton. I am proud to stand by you.” Brandon embraced his friend’s shoulders.
“I am proud to be a man, Brandon. Luke died a man today. I plan on dying like a man tomorrow. I am sorry I will never see my wife and children again. I am sorry that I die for no other reason than to make someone else feel important. It is no fault of ours what happens here tonight. God grants us our unalienable rights and because of that, I don’t feel so bad fighting for them. Because I believe that, I will die with a restful spirit.
We can’t change the minutes of tonight, Brandon. I know that. But, we can change the hours of tomorrow. I’ve thought a lot today about this walk Luke and I are taking. I’ve cried, I’ve cussed, and I’ve called on the name of the Lord to pull me away to a safer place. But, do you know the truth? The truth is He’s going to take me away to a safer place. The sad part, Brandon, is that my family will still be in danger. How long before they can feel safe? How long before they can be safe? If you can do one thing for me, Brandon, do this. You keep my family safe. Move them away from here if you have to. Move them far away from this Town with mean eyes. Will you do that for me, Brandon?”
“I’ll do that and more. I promise,” Brandon answered his friend.
“That will be enough, Brandon, you’ll see.”
The End of The Excitement Ch. 8 The Town With Mean Eyes Part 2 .
Wow, Potneckers, that was a BIG part 2! Part 3 of Chapter 8 will follow soon. As a reminder, I hope you are scrolling way down almost to the bottom of this website to start reading The Excitement. Get the FULL flavor! Start from the beginning.
The Town With Mean Eyes, Part 1
2 Thessalonians 3:13
But as for you, brothers and sisters, do not grow weary of doing good.
There was only one time in my life that I slept a more peaceful sleep than I did that night after the last meeting. I was content and smiled when I closed my eyes because I knew, just as sure as I laid my head on that feather pillow, that my family’s lives were full of a new hope and a new promise. Our lives were ours now, we believed that, and only God owned our souls. When I said my good night prayers that night it was with a new conviction. It was like we had all woke up to a brand new world. It was like we had all been reborn.
We looked at our days differently now because they were all for us. What we did, on each of those days, determined how well we made it in this county. If we didn’t do nothing we wouldn’t have nothing and this was a rough place, not to have nothing in it. We owed it to our boys and our past struggles to use our freedom to make something with our lives. Hilton and I made ourselves that promise. If the Lord was willing and there was a place where we could just have an opportunity to make it, we would take it.
I was putting on coffee that first morning of our new life and getting a breakfast ready for my men when I heard Jeremiah coming up the trail.
“Wooo. Woo, hoo. Mr. Hilton, Miss Elly. It’s me, Jeremiah. Miss Elly, sorry to come calling so early. Woo hoo, Mr. Hilton.”
The dark was still hiding in the lower parts of the tree branches and underbrush. A cool morning was just breaking on the farm. He must have woke the ferryman!
“I’m here,” Hilton answered. “By the woodpile.”
Jeremiah dipped his head down away from the house and the line he was walking and instantly looked back up towards Hilton. In one swift turn, he was quickly headed in his direction. He made a beeline straight for him. He was a bundle of excitement and it was funny, the way he walked right up to Hilton talking the whole time. It was like he was saying everything on his mind at the very same time he was thinking it. He would hold his arms out with his palms up like he was pleading one minute and then, the next minute, he would raise them up above his head like he was giving a hallelujah praise!
“Mr. Hilton, I got something I need to talk to you about,” he broke out with even before saying the first how do you do!
“I’m thinking about leaving the land between the rivers, Mr. Hilton but, before you say anything, hear me out. I’m thinking about moving to a real city, a big town, a place where everybody can have a chance. You know about that railroad they have going out of St. Louis, Mr. Hilton? Well, I aim to work at that iron mill just this side of the Mississippi River, in Illinois. It’s a big ol’ spur and there is a big demand for them rails. I ain’t afraid of hard work. If hard work is the only thing standing between me and a good living then you can count me gone. Watch out, boys! Whoo, doggie! Illinois is a free state, Mr. Hilton. Once I get through Kentucky I will be double free! A free man in a free state! Woo hoo, pappy!
I’m a free man now, Mr. Hilton. I’m a free man! I been up all night thinking about it. I feel like I been reborn again. I feel like my mama and my daddy lived and died for me to be free and now they done, somehow, seen me set free. I got to do right by them. I’m all they got left.
I know you been a free man a long time, Mr. Hilton. I know you already know what its like to be free. That’s why I come over here this morning, Mr. Hilton. To ask your advice. You see, I’m just new born free and I don’t want to mess it up. I don’t want to waste my freedom now that I just got it. I just don’t see no future for me here, Mr. Hilton. My mama is gone, my daddy is gone, and there is nothing holding me here. Besides, this land can be a hard and scary place if you are on your own. Not out here, not between the rivers. But what if I don’t want to always be a farmer? What if I just want to go into Town sometime? This County ain’t gonna change for a long time, Mr. Hilton.
Am I wrong, Mr. Hilton? Will I be messing up if I take my freedom papers and go to Illinois? They a free state! What does that mean, a free state?
How am I supposed to use this new freedom, Mr. Hilton?”
Jeremiah finally stopped talking. He was all talked out. He said everything that he had on his mind all night. No doubt he had not eaten. His eyes were full of stars and hope. I took coffee to the men as the biscuits baked.
Hilton looked like he tried to jump in and answer Jeremiah a couple of times, but Jeremiah kept firing his questions, one right after the other and didn’t give him the chance. Hilton just cocked back up on a stump smiling as he listened to his friend.
“You’re supposed to do just what you are doing right now, Jeremiah.” Hilton finally counseled. “You are supposed to ask questions. Will this be right for me? What are the consequences of my actions? First, you must convince yourself that you are free. Then you must ask yourself, how free can I be? How free do I want to be? It sounds like you want complete freedom. You won’t be happy with the kind of freedom they only ration out on Sundays. I don’t like that kind of freedom, either.”
Hilton had my attention now.
“I will say three things to you, Jeremiah, to answer your questions. First, never be afraid to try something new. You can always go back to where you were. Second, never knowingly move to a worse place or position than the one you presently occupy. Third, if I can talk Miss Elly into it, we’ll go with you!”
I nearly dropped my coffee.
St. Lou, I repeated, when I came back to myself. The Lou lingered on my lips and the ooooh turned to aaah as I took a deep breath. It might as well have been Paris, France. It seemed so far away. Could the drawings in those river boat books be true? Could these wonderful places, these cities, exist? Were they there for us, too? What kind of amazing things would they have? Was it safe? Was it real? My head was so full of questions and excitement that I, suddenly, knew just how Jeremiah felt.
“Go with me, Mr. Hilton?” Jeremiah was surprised to hear that. “Really, Mr. Hilton?”
From way before he ever began planning to come out to the Great Western to work, Jeremiah always kept a strong desire inside himself to make a successful living. He was independent out of nature and he survived well his lot in life. He wanted to come over and make his mark at the Great Western. He was primed for it but she was gone now and nobody knew for how long. She was gone, but Jeremiah still had that fire inside him. He still had that drive for success. He knew in just under three days of travel that he could be through the backwoods of Kentucky, across the Ohio river, and up into Illinois. He knew he could catch a train from there that would take him to his iron and steel heaven.
“Those men are building that railroad spur going in twelve different directions,” he repeated to Hilton. “With your knowledge of iron and your organization of furnaces, with your contacts, we could easily land a job forming those rails. There is a future there, Mr. Hilton. Samuel and Hilmon can grow up free and educated sitting right alongside other free and educated children just like them. They would all be thinking free minded things and coming up with free minded answers at the same time. All of your friends would be free. There would be no more whipping and no more running from the dogs. Think of it, Mr. Hilton.”
“I have,” Hilton replied. “What do you think about St. Louis, Miss Elly?” Hilton asked me.
“It sounds exciting,” I answered. I was telling the truth.
Of course, I wanted to go to St. Louis! It was that magical place where we had been sending people to find their freedom. It was a place worth risking your life to see. It was another dream we were chasing and we seemed to be catching our dreams now. This was a dream that would be worth catching.
I was tired of the fight. Jeremiah was right. We could never win the fight here. Not in this county. The cards were stacked against us. Too much bias existed among the people and those in power chose to let it be that way. It was divisive, unfair, and non-productive but, that was how they wanted it. The powers that be needed the separation. They needed it to remind themselves that they were the superior ide. They didn’t care if some of the uppity folks left. They didn’t care if they had white trash or black trash on their hands.
Unfortunately, for the sake of the fair-minded, most of the time the bad people in Town outnumbered the good people in Town. You were on your own in a fix because the few good people in Town always had something to lose by standing up for what was fair. Everybody tended to keep their necks tucked in.
In some sense, it really didn’t seem like we were free. We were paper free, officially, but still treated as lower class. Here, we would always be talked down to. This was one of those places with that “Sunday morning” kind of freedom Hilton was talking about. I loved the country but, there was opportunity in the city. There was opportunity and real freedom.
Because of this and because of my children, I wanted to leave. Hilton spoke to Jeremiah.
“Jeremiah, we need to go, too. We need to go somewhere. I won’t raise my children to live with the madness and the evil that still lives here. We could go back to farming and make a decent living, as long as the weather cooperated. We could be free dirt farmers all day long and I might even set out a few grapevines. We could do all that. But I won’t. I want more than that for my children.
I won’t just up and move my family, either, Jeremiah. Not without a little bit of knowledge about where we are going. I propose you go ahead to St. Louis. You scout it out and I will give you the names of some of my contacts. You tell them what our plans are and see if they have a place for us. If there are jobs, find a safe place for us to live. If it is all so, Elly and I and the boys will join you. Maybe, as soon as the spring.
If money flows by red-hot iron in St. Louis then we will be a part of it. I see no reason to waste our talents here. For now, Elly and I will board up our farm at Cedar Pond and move back across the River to Saline Creek. We will squat over there and prepare for the journey to St. Louis. I believe you will find the industry you speak of, Jeremiah. I believe there is a place for us there. You go before us and we will follow in the spring. When will you leave and how are you set for money?”
“I will travel light and require little preparation. I leave Monday morning. I would leave tomorrow, but I have something to do. There is also something I would ask that you tend to until my return.
I have 75 dollars saved for the journey. It will be more than enough to get me there. I had 90 dollars saved. That was the twenty dollars I got for working each of the four years on the farm and the 10 dollar gold piece the Elams gave me. The only thing I spent money on was the 15 dollars for Mama’s funeral so I could bury her, proper. The burial was only 12 dollars, but I paid more to honor Mama’s last wishes. She said she hoped someday I could put a marker over her that read, “Daughter, Loving Mother, and Faithful Wife. My Darling Buck, until we meet again.”
Mama cried when she asked me if I could put a cross of white blossoms on her casket. She wanted the world to know, as they laid her down to rest, that she was a married woman. She was afraid to ask me. She was afraid for me worrying about it if I didn’t have the money. She just wanted a simple one, really, but I couldn’t leave it at that. I did make her one by my own hands and I put that one in her hands to carry with her. That way, my daddy can see it when they meet again, over Jordan. She was Mrs. Buck Porter and she wanted the world to know it. I paid the undertaker’s wife extra to make the one she had on her casket.
Just keep my Mama’s grave clear, please, until I return. If my daddy ever finds his way back here I want him to know that we all loved him.” Jeremiah had a tear fall down his cheek, but he quickly wiped it away.
The cross of white blossoms on Mrs. Buck Porter’s coffin was the biggest one anybody had ever seen. Everybody talked about how pretty it was and about how it was the mark of a married woman. His mama would have been proud.
“Jeremiah, I need you to have a fighting chance in St. Louis. 75 dollars will get you there but you need to survive and you need a way back if things don’t work out. Elly and I will give you another 75 dollars to help you out. Use the name of this contact first, he is a personal friend of Mr. Newell. If all works out you won’t need another.” Hilton wrote a name on a piece of paper and Jeremiah folded it up and put it with his money.
“I’ll send a letter back as soon as I get settled,” Jeremiah promised as he went back into his excited stage.
“Free, free, free! Oh, Lordy, me! What am I going to do, a free man up in old St. Lou!” Jeremiah was singing and bobbing his head around. Hilton was clapping his hands and slapping them on his thigh. Samuel was up by now with all of the bustling about and he was half stepping too, a little, in his sleep. A fishing pole was dragging behind him and dangling in his little hand. Everybody was laughing and happy and Hilton just swayed me around like we were dancing, too, but we wasn’t really dancing. We was just holding one another and it felt good, my man holding me like that.
I’ll never get over Jeremiah’s smile. He had been through so much in his short life but tomorrow was his new day to live and we all knew it.
“Right now, Mr. Jeremiah,” Hilton said, seriously, “You can help me stock that porch up with this wood. Winter is moving in fast. I can feel it in the air this morning. It will be a long time before we see another sunny day like yesterday.”
There was no time for crying now. That time had passed. It was only a time for rejoicing.
It was a good plan. Hilton felt like something was calling him away. He felt like we needed to leave this place and he wanted to be near that fire again. He loved the fire. He said when that iron was flowing red hot it was like holding a river of fire in your hands. Hilton Jacobs held a river of fire in his hands every day at the Great Western. Dover, even the land between the rivers, couldn’t hold him now.
Jeremiah ate four of my big ol’ cat head biscuits with red-eye gravy and two slices of ham, with eggs, before he left. I knew that boy had to be hungry. After being up all night, he was worn out by the time he went back across the river. He said he was going to clear his mama’s grave and then go home and rest up for the journey. He said he would pass back through on Monday morning. We knew it would be early. We would be ready for him.
Samuel and Hilton fished on the decision all day after Jeremiah left. My boys brought back a fine mess of fish to cook up. Hilton knew just the right time to be getting back home. He always made sure he made it with enough sunlight left to get the cooking done before it got dark. My job was to get that fire stirred up and my man could be counted on to be along just about the time it got to jumping.
Now, right on time, here they come and with a fat slab of creek steaks all filleted out and ready for the pan.
When everybody had a belly full and it got quiet, me and Hilton talked about St. Lou. We could send the boys to fine schools there, Hilton said. Life was easier in the big towns, he said. If you had enough money you didn’t have to do hardly anything. All the food you could ever eat was right there. Money was all it took. Hilton planned on having a lot of that. He said he would be very surprised if his contacts with Mr. Newell didn’t pan out. He said he thought we would be in St. Lou by the summer. Oh, Lordy me, I thought to myself.
After I accepted the fact that we would be leaving here for good, there were certain things about living between the rivers I would truly miss. I would miss the hummingbirds and the woodpeckers. I would miss the Cardinals and the Blue Jays. I knew there would be no eagles, no hawks and no owls in the city so I would miss them, too. I would miss the bull frogs and the lightning bugs. They were all around us. We lived with them. The yellow and black butterflies and bumble bees would flutter, fly, and buzz around us no more. The creek steaks would all be safe now from the sharp throw of Samuel’s well-trained lure. I sure would miss them. These animals knew nothing of the hurtful ways of man. They would live on in relative peace here yet, we would leave. I was ready to move on.
I really didn’t care what Hilton was saying. I was listening to him but all I knew was that as he was talking, his soft and strong fingers were rubbing the side of my head and my neck and my shoulders and it all felt so good. I hung my head and he rubbed my skull to the bone with an easy touch that soothed me. I closed my eyes and rolled my head back and let my shoulders fall so that my hands were limp, by my side. He rubbed the tightness right out of my arms and I felt the sweet touch of his lips on the back of my neck and my ears. Hilton said St. Louis and I said yes. He whispered soon and I said yes. He said when love is love, baby and I said yes, please baby, yes.
I slept the most peaceful sleep of my life that Saturday night. I believe Hilton did, too.
The boys didn’t fish on Sunday. We rested. Hilton read from the Bible and we sang hymns in the cool morning air. We thought about Jeremiah and about how he must be ready to bust with excitement.
Hilton had been up about fifteen minutes on Monday morning and had just enough time to get the coffee ready when we heard that woo hoo coming back down the trail. Jeremiah had woke the ferryman again! He said the happy boat tender would take no money from him for this trip across the river. He knew of Jeremiah’s travel to St. Louis and he wanted to send him away with good wishes. Jeremiah took this as a good sign. The ferryman was a friend, no matter how many times he woke him up early!
We said our goodbyes, for now, and we all believed we held the bright promise of a free tomorrow in our sights. I’ll see you again in the spring, Jeremiah said, as he backed away toward the North West trail. Even though he was a free man, he still had to get through Kentucky. Mose would go with him all the way to the Ohio River and see that Jeremiah’s boat returned from Illinois without him. We would then know, for sure, that Jeremiah was double free.
After Jeremiah and Mose passed through the trail we drank our morning coffee and imagined all the things we would see by this time, next year. Samuel woke up early and, imagine that, he wanted to go fishing!
“We’ve got to go to the “Blue Hole” today Mama! That’s a whole different kind of fishing.”
“Why is it different, Samuel?” I asked.
“They got BIG fish in the Blue Hole, Mama.” He held his hands as far apart as he could in describing those striped monsters.
“Samuel,” Hilton asked. Did you dig us up some big fishing worms last night?”
“I did, Daddy! I got us some good fishing worms. I even got us some half worms!”
Hilton smiled and laughed. “Some half worms? Did you get us any quarter sized worms, son?”
Samuel thought for a moment and answered, “No, but I can make you some.”
“That’s alright, son. We’ll make due.” Hilton looked at me when he spoke to Samuel. “You sure are one smart feller.”
“Mama says it’s because I take after her,” Samuel repeated what his Mama had said, many times.
Hilton looked back at me and smiled, “Your Mama is right and don’t you forget it.”
“I won’t, Daddy.”
I looked at Hilton. “You know why I tell him that, don’t you?” I asked. “Because I want him to grow up just like you. If I tell him he is just like me he will do everything in his power to be just like you. I believe he will have the best of both of us.”
Hilton smiled and nodded, yes. “Let’s go fishing, son.”
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
“Jesus Christ, Opson!” Howard Claiborne screamed as he heard the news.
“Another five slaves escaped over the Sabbath? Where in the hell did they escape from? No doubt they were collected near the hollows of the Great Western and that bastard Luke Elam’s property.”
“No sir, Mr. Claiborne. These slaves were owned by the Bellwood Furnace and the Bear Spring Furnace. Three were from Bellwood and two from Bear Springs. They were caught by the dogs running in the woods off the trail toward Hopkinsville. They were on the other side of the river.”
“All slaves, Opson?” Claiborne inquired. Judge Virgil Kaney sat in the room with Howard Claiborne and Thomas Opson but did not speak.
“No sir, Howard,” Opson answered in a more cordial tone. The Bellwood slave had his family with him. Two slaves were from the Bear Spring Furnace.”
“Castrate the slave with a family, Opson and lock the two runaway slaves in the jail. We are putting a stop to all of this right now.” Claiborne knew he was the Judge, the Jury, and the Executioner. He was the god of his world. Who could stop him? Who could even stand up to him? His word was the law.
“The married slave is already dead, Howard.” Opson appeased. “The fool was shot trying to take up for his wife. The other two slaves are still alive. They’re half dead, but I’ll throw them in the jail if that’s what you want.”
“Opson, sit your arse down, boy, and listen to what I am telling you.”
Howard Claiborne was calling the shots. He cared nothing of anything that did not add to his wealth and power. More than that, he despised and loathed anything that threatened his throne. He would stamp it out. He had the power to do so. He owned it. Lives in the way did not matter. Human lives were counted in numbers to Howard Claiborne, not in feelings. Families were beneath him. Unity meant absolutely nothing to him. And this was how he treated the white families, the sharecroppers, beneath him.
Howard Claiborne was brought here, as a young child, by a military man on a land grant. That military man wasn’t his real father and word was that he worked the boy and his mother long and hard for a lot of years with little reward. It was told he treated them both real bad. Claiborne’s mother ended up dying too young. Most people said she worked herself to death. It wasn’t long after she passed that the military man just up and disappeared. Howard said he went hunting one day and never came back. That left the young Claiborne, at 17, to make it on his own. He never knew who his real daddy was and his mama was beaten down. That put a chip on his shoulder that he never got over. It turned him real mean.
Of course, this all happened long before the slave arrived. Howard Claiborne had dealt with “white trash” long before the negro landed in Stewart County. When Claiborne and all of his “progressive” Furnace owning friends found the slave they degenerated to a whole new level of superiority. They treated the negro as chattel, as real property. It disgusted them to believe that the negro could have the austere comeuppance to believe they could ever be free. And it wasn’t just poor white folk or black folk that Howard Claiborne treated badly. He made a habit of spitting on any Chinese man that walked by. He liked to make a spectacle of them to his friends and acquaintances. What could they do?
Many of those good people left this Town.
Howard Claiborne was an evil man. The sad thing? He was just one, of many. All of these Furnace owners arrived in Town and came into their own by various means. Whether it be inherited money, stolen money, or even hard earned money, it was all there. Murdered for money? Of course. It was there, too. This place didn’t get its rough name for nothing. And as for the money? The mean ones had the most of it. It was just the way of life.
Claiborne had lived long enough to see all of his partners, one by one, die. Cross Elam was the last to go. After Cross died Howard Claiborne saw himself as the last man standing. He believed it was left up to him to stop this creeping destruction of their empire. He must stop this escaping, this uprising. It was a rebellion against their old way of life. He would stop it, by God, he would.
“Boy,” he glared at Opson. “You’re going to earn your money tonight or I’ll have a new Constable by morning. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Sir!” Opson sat up straight and listened with his eyes intent on what his owner was saying. He answered, smartly. The Major, himself, would have been proud of the military bearing his son displayed in answering so obediently. Opson was eager for his orders.
“I’m bringing in extra riders from Dickson and Ashland City, Opson. We’re going to take a team of men and go into every slave camp in this County. Go to every Furnace, Opson, and to every slave encampment. Burn down any church or worship area you may see. Bring me back the leader of each camp. We will stop this rebellion. We will stop this uprising now! Tomorrow is Wednesday, December 3rd. I want this over this week, Opson. Have all of the leaders of this uprising in my jail by Thursday morning. Do you understand me, Opson?”
“Charge the camps with the extra horses,” Claiborne demanded. “The rebellion ends here. The next thing you know, slaves will be killing white people to escape. I am paying these extra men and horses for a reason, Opson. Charge the camps. Run over, with your horses, anyone that gets in your way. If they attempt to obstruct you, kill them on the spot! Do you hear me, boy?”
“What did I say?”
“Kill them on the spot,” Opson repeated.
“Go to every camp. Run over anybody that gets in your way and burn something down, dammit! Bring me back the leaders. They will be the ones speaking out the most. Now, what part of any of that don’t you understand, boy?”
“I understand it all, Mr. Claiborne,” Opson assured.
“Meet the riders from out of town at the jail tomorrow morning and get to work, then.” Claiborne spit his sacred tobacco juice into the fire and wiped residue of it from the dried spot on his chin.
“And Opson, you take ten of those riders and go to the Great Western. I want Luke Elam and Hilton Jacobs in that jail tomorrow. Do you understand?”
“But the Great Western is shut down, Howard. They don’t even have a slave encampment.” Opson barely got his words out.
Howard Claiborne swung around and backhanded Thomas Opson right across his face and it knocked him out of his chair and onto the floor. Opson saw stars and didn’t jump right up and it was a good thing. Claiborne’s bodyguards were ready to finish what he started, but he waved them off.
Opson looked up at Howard Claiborne standing above him. “I said Elam and Jacobs, boy. You bring me Elam and Jacobs. Do you understand that?”
“Yes, Sir,” Opson answered.
“Catch them away from their homes. That way we can accuse them of anything. Now, if you want to keep that farm get the hell out of here and do your job.”
Opson disappeared into the night with his Deputies. There was no doubt that on the very next day, with reinforcements, their marching orders would be strictly carried out.
“You’re going to work Thursday too, Virgil. Get your robe ready.” Claiborne barked.
“What are we going to do with Luke Elam, Howard? You can’t just whip him like a negro.”
Virgil Kaney wasn’t completely without reason. While he was morally bankrupt, he wasn’t as insulated from the people as Howard Claiborne was. He didn’t have bodyguards or Committee of Safety members protecting his movements everywhere he went. He had to see Luke Elam in Town. He had to face his family on the square. He had to live with his decisions. He tried to do right in every other decision in the County that he could. That way, he rationalized, people would forgive him for always ruling in Howard Claiborne’s favor. He bent the rules a little and the money wasn’t bad.
“I’ll have him whipped harder than any negro you’ve ever seen! What the hell do you mean I can’t whip him?” Howard Claiborne snarled his lips and gritted his teeth. His snake eyes grew tight as they honed in on Virgil Kaney.
“Luke Elam is the worst of all white men. He is a white man with a conscience, a sense of righteousness. He is always talking about some kind of soulful truth that is supposed to, somehow, miraculously, set them all free. Ha! That’s a load of horse shat. Work hard and save your money, they say. Live by the straight and narrow, they preach. A wagon load of Christians never owned anything but a wagon load of faith and faith won’t pay the bills, Kaney. I didn’t get to this position by having a conscious, boy. Men like Luke Elam are a threat. Luke Elam costs me money. He takes money out of my pocket and he gives it to those lowly workers as if they meant something like their lives mean something. They don’t mean anything. Not in this Town. Not if I have anything to do with it. Luke Elam will be in your Court Thursday and you will sentence him to 100 lashes of the whip at the stocks in Town.”
Virgil Kaney jumped from his chair. “I won’t do it, Howard. That’s a death sentence! You know the negro boy died at 75 lashes. 100 lashes will kill him! I have to live in this Town, Howard. Give him 50 lashes, give him a year in the County jail, take his sacred tobacco but, for Christ’s sake Howard, we can’t kill him. It will never be forgotten.”
Virgil Kaney was pleading for his life and his peace, too. He only wanted to sell his neighbors out a little bit at a time. He didn’t want to kill them. It was well known that Virgil Kaney was in Howard Claiborne’s watch pocket, but that had worked well for him up until now. Up until now Virgil Kaney was, pretty much, well liked out in the County.
“100 lashes, boy. You’ll give him that Thursday or there will be a new Judge in Town by Friday. You will then load up your obnoxious wife and your pretty little girlfriend and be gone or you will be in eternity by Saturday. Do you completely understand me, boy?”
Virgil Kaney’s left eye twitched under the pressure but only for a second, or two.
“I understand,” he said. “100 lashes. I’ll have to add 1 year in the County jail so I can say I didn’t know the whipping would kill him.”
Howard Claiborne laughed.
And He said, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.”
On December 3rd, 1856 I woke up earlier than usual. I could feel the cold of winter biting in the air. Hilton rousted himself out even before me. The first thing he did was poke and stoke up that fire and I was glad because it chased the nip right out of the air. I loved to pull the quilts up to my chin and stare at the sparklers and the sparkles of my man’s fire. Anywhere he made it, his fire was good. I could feel the heat and the warmth of it on my face. I felt safe so I closed my eyes for a few more minutes. When I woke back up Hilton was already outside. He was gathering up things down by one of the out buildings and putting them on a wagon.
I looked in on Samuel and little Hilmon before I mashed up a nice, warm sweet potato pudding for breakfast. I took Hilton some of it out by the wagon. He nearly had it loaded. We sat there like two children, without a care in the world, happily eating our warm milk and butter, sweet potato pudding and I asked him if we were taking all of this with us to St. Lou. I asked him about his plans for the day.
“We’ve got to do something with it,” he said. “Some of it will go with us. Most of it, we will give away once we get back across the river. If things work out, it will be a long time before we ever come back here. Our boys will be grown men, Lord Willing, and they may not want to come with us if we did. Although, Samuel could talk me into returning if he brings up all of the good fishing holes around here. I’m sure he’ll remember them.
Samuel and I will be leaving out earlier than usual this morning. We will fish one more day and then we will give you a break on fish, Mama. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve talked Samuel into a quail hunt for tomorrow.
Today, we are going across the river towards Saline Creek to meet up with Luke. I will share with him our plans to move back across the river and stay closer to the Creek through the winter. I will ask him to go with us to St. Louis and I will bribe him with some of your sweet potato pudding. If he likes it as much as your blackberry pie he might just ride in the wagon with us to St. Lou.”
“Oh, my goodness!” I wallowed. “I sure hope he doesn’t come.” I was putting on some airs. The both of you in old St. Lou? And a steel town, at that! Before it’s over you two will own that town. I just don’t know if I could stand it,” I sadly lamented as I put my forearm to my forehead. “It all sounds so highfalutin to me. The stress of it all, the fancy parties with the Governor!” I blew out a long, “Whew!”
Hilton grinned and asked me if I had everything I needed. He put his arms around me and asked me, again, “Are you sure, baby?”
I could feel all of my man next to me.
I wish I would have never let him go. I was supposed to make him stay close to the house.
“When Samuel finishes his pudding, we’ll head out.” It woke me from a daydream when I heard him say that. I was awestruck and I smiled. I just smiled and I let him go.
“We might be a little later than usual getting back, but not by much,” he finished.
“I’m ready, daddy!” Samuel shouted as he ran out the door. He was still wiping sweet potato pudding from his chin. “Where are we going today, daddy?”
“We’re going across the river to the Cave Spring fishing hole. The one by Kingin’s Hollow.”
“The supper hole, daddy?” Samuel’s eyes lit up when Hilton nodded yes.
“Mama, we are going to the supper hole today,” he said, excitedly. “You go there, you catch supper every time. It’s guaranteed!”
“Guaranteed,” Hilton repeated, as they walked away.
My men had been gone about an hour when I heard the horses coming. It was a big pack of them filling up the trail. They never did come on the farm. Instead, they kept going north, towards Kentucky. They had about enough time to get to the state line and back when I heard them again. They all rode back down towards the Great Western. This wasn’t normal and I knew something wasn’t right. We might, every now and then, see two or three riders policing the trail up to Kentucky, but there were at least a dozen, or more, of them now and they weren’t stopping for nothing. I was nervous for my boys and I wanted them to be home. I started the fire early.
It was just the normal time for them to be getting in when I heard the first news come back up through the trail. A former worker from the Great Western rode his horse fast up to the farm to tell Hilton what was happening. He told me, instead. The unknown riders had come out hard and heavy this morning, he explained. He said they went to every Furnace. There were so many of them, fifteen and twenty riders at a time swarming into every camp, setting fire to the altar churches, some homes, and even stomping on people with their horses. At Bellwood, he said, some twenty horses charged, shoulder to shoulder, up through a narrow trail that was rounded on it’s sides like a bowl. The people were all caught by surprise and were trying to run away but had nowhere to escape. It was like they were herding cattle up a chute. It all happened so fast, out of nowhere, and they couldn’t get away. Those newly deputized Committee of Safety Riders, led by some dark man, ran right over Hezekiah Tanner and the little grand baby he was trying to protect. Hez pitched the grand baby up the bank to safety just as that first horse trampled his legs and his hips. He would have been crippled for life if he had lived but, I swear, the witness said, that next rider aimed his horse’s iron shoes right for Hezekiah’s head. He found it, too, and Hezekiah was gone. Whenever they burned an altar, anybody who complained or even said anything was chained up and taken to the Dover Jail. They had six or seven slaves already locked up in there.
“Please come home, Hilton.” I whispered to myself and said a prayer to the Almighty.
Luke Elam met Hilton Jacobs by the Cave Spring pond and they let Samuel pick the spot to fish from. A cold spring flowed out of a deep and secluded cave and the pond it fed was already jumping with fish. They bit and nibbled on the poor and unfortunate bugs caught skimming along their surface. Luke was happy to see Hilton and he was happy to hear the news about us moving back across the river. He would open up the old Fitzhugh farm right next door to his property and Hilton and the boys and I would stay there, he insisted. The offer to go to St. Louis was very intriguing, Luke agreed. He said he would probably build another Furnace on Saline Creek, but all offers were on the table. He said he wasn’t looking forward to putting out a sacred tobacco crop this year without Jeremiah but, enough men had come back across the river from the Great Western to help and he could probably make it through one tough season. He laughed and added to Hilton, that was only if he didn’t take everybody with him to St. Lou.
“That Indian Cave is right there, Hilton.” Luke pointed to thick brush laying heavy on the side of a hill.
“I can’t even see the entrance, Luke. It’s covered up too good.” Hilton responded.
“I’ve been all through it and out all three exits and sometimes I still have a hard time finding it.”
“Daddy, look at this spot over here,” Samuel called.
“That is a fine place, Samuel,” Hilton and Luke agreed. The men followed the young man down the bank to the pond.
They had barely reached the water’s edge when Samuel let out loud, at once and without warning, a scared and frightened scream. Hilton and Luke jumped up in horror at what might be wrong as they heard the boy’s cry. It was a little boy’s anguished, high pitched tone and it had Hilton in an instant by his son’s side searching for the cause.
There, right before them, a man lay passed out on the ground. He was half in and half out of the pond and lay draped over an exposed tree root looking like he should be dead. He had only the shred of a shirt left on his body. His mostly bare back showed a mass of scars from the whip. His pants were barely hanging on his legs. They had been cut to pieces, no doubt, through countless miles of running and swimming to find his freedom.
“Samuel, stand over here,” Hilton said as he sized up the stranded man.
“We need to leave him alone,” Luke warned and he looked up and around for any sign of anyone else in the area. “Let’s get him up out of the water and see if he is alive but we need to get him out of sight before anyone sees us. He is clearly a runaway.”
The man was exhausted and cold and could barely crawl up out of the water. He explained he had been propped up on that tree sleeping since before nightfall. It was his first sleep in three days, he said.
“You are lucky,” Hilton said. “If those Committee riders had happened by here you would be easy pickings for them. They would have you in chains in a minute and taken back to where you came from. Where did you come from?” He asked the man.
“I’m running from a place named Tompkinsville, Kentucky,” the man explained.
“Well, you’re going the wrong way, fellow, if you are trying to escape. You are heading South and you are in Tennessee.” Luke revealed.
The men sat him up and dried him and gave him some sweet potato pudding to eat. It was all they had. They gave him another shirt to put on but could not replace his pants. As he gained his strength he began to talk.
“I’m not going north,” the man said. “I’m looking for a Town named Dover, Tennessee.” He splashed some water on his face and it cleared the mud away. “My name is Buck Porter and I’m looking for my wife and son, Jeremiah.”
As the mud was washed the man’s face became clearer.
“My Lord.” Luke mouthed the words, but they were barely audible.
Hilton just sat there, staring at him.
“What did you say, sir?” He had to make sure he heard that right.
“My name is Buck Porter,” the man repeated. “Four years ago a man named Cross Elam bought my wife and son off the blocks in that Dover town. He sent me north because I tried to protect them from his abuse. I didn’t like the way that old man looked at my family. I thought he was evil. I could tell he was a mean man. I didn’t want him to buy my family. I never dreamed he would split us up. It took me a year to figure out where I was up in Tompkinsville. It took another year to figure out where Dover, Tennessee was. This is my second escape. This is the second time I’ve tried to find Dover. They caught me once and swore if I ever ran again they would cut off my foot. They whipped me pretty hard for that. If I wasn’t such a hard worker that could go all day they would have killed me straight off. Am I close to Dover?”
“Daddy, he looks just like an old Jeremiah,” Samuel likened.
“Jeremiah looks just like a young Mr. Buck,” Hilton corrected his son.
“Buck Porter, welcome home,” Hilton said as he introduced himself.
“Mr. Porter, I want to tell you, your son is a free man. Jeremiah is a very smart and hard working young man and just this week he set out for St. Louis to work the steel mills to fashion those iron rails. We plan to join him in the spring. You must come home with us.”
“But what of my wife, Mr. Jacobs? Is my wife well?”
Samuel, Hilton, and Luke all looked, sadly, at the ground and Buck Porter knew the news wasn’t going to be good about his wife.
“She passed, Buck. I’m so sorry. She got the fever and died this past summer. I’ll take you to where she is buried. It’s in a pretty spot. Jeremiah stood strong for her, Buck, and helped her all through her sickness. You would have been real proud of your son, Buck.” Hilton tried to break the news easy, but there was no easy way to do it.
Buck Porter laid his head back on the ground and sobbed. He had no strength. His tears filled his eyes and four years of pain flowed down his face. He bowed his head and closed his eyes. He said a prayer for his beloved wife. He wished in his prayer for just one last time to tell her how much he loved her. He swore that he would have given his life for her. He apologized for making that man mad. He wanted to tell her he was sorry.
“Let’s go home, Buck. Hilton lifted his new friend off the ground. “We’ll tell you all about your fine son and what he has planned.”
Horses! Horses, all around the rim of the hollow.
“Stay right where you are, Luke Elam. You, too, Jacobs. Don’t either one of you make a move!” It was Thomas Opson come riding back on his stolen black stallion of death and he was yelling down into the hollow at the men.
The horses were on top of them so fast. No one saw where they came from and no one heard a sound, but they were all, with their hired riders, winding down through the hollow. They were closing in on them from every trail. They would be surrounded within seconds.
“Buck!” Luke screamed. “Take Samuel and get inside that cave before they see you. Go, now!”
Without thinking, Buck Porter grabbed up Samuel Jacobs and ran with him, in his arms, to behind the thick branches of foliage that hid the cave’s entrance from view. Luke directed them to the entrance. Although it was only ten paces from them, they both disappeared quickly into the cave just before the Committee riders got to the men.
“Where is that other man, Elam?” Opson demanded. “Where is that slave you were helping. I saw his ragged pants. He is a runaway. Where is he, Jacobs?”
“There was no one else, Opson. Just, us.” Luke Elam said.
“Liar!” Straddling high on his mean mount, Thomas Opson took the butt of his rifle stock and slammed it hard against the side of Luke Elam’s head. The elder Elam fell straight to the ground.
“Sit down, boy. Or I’ll kill you where you stand,” Opson ordered Hilton Jacobs as he was moving to help his fallen partner.
Buck Porter and Samuel Jacobs didn’t make a sound. The riders didn’t know of the cave and had no idea they were hiding only feet away from them. They looked everywhere for the man Opson said he saw, but he was nowhere to be found. No matter. Thomas Opson cared not to waste time quarrelling over a runaway. He had apprehended the men he was instructed to collect. He could go back to Dover now.
Opson directed the riders to tie the unconscious Luke Elam across a mule to be transported to the jail. Hilton Jacobs was handcuffed and put on the same mule. Opson and his riders led them both up the hollow and back across the river to Dover.
Samuel and Buck stayed in the cave until nightfall. The riders were long gone before Buck Porter would risk leaving the safety of the cave. Samuel told him he could get them home, even under the light of the moon. He said they would have to get to the ferry, but he could get them there, he was positive. After it got dark, Buck and Samuel listened. They listened for the sounds of a quiet night and anything different, anything unusual, even a slight crack or snap out of place in the woods, kept them longer in the darkness of the cave.
Finally, they made their way out into the night and towards the ferry. Buck was a little scared, but Samuel knew the ferryman, he assured. When they got there the ferryman knew of everything going on. He had crossed the river twice as many times as normal that day carrying all those damned riders back and forth, to and fro, and from one side of the river to the other. They never paid him. He ferried Luke and Hilton across as captives, earlier. The ferryman knew Hilton Jacobs was in the Dover Jail with Luke Elam. He was worried for Samuel when he didn’t see him with the Riders. He recognized, immediately, the little boy and he knew they needed help.
“Get over here, quickly,” He told Samuel and Buck as he hid them under canvas tarps covering some barrels on his ferry. He made the trip across the river as fast as he could, whispering to Buck and Samuel all the way.
“Be careful,” he said. “The riders are still out. They are mostly all drunk with whiskey now, but you must still be aware. Samuel knows the way home, but I will also tell you, it is about six miles from the bank of the river. Get off the trail if you hear anything. May God be with you, my friends.”
“Thank you,” an unbelieving Buck Porter said.
It was past midnight when Buck got Samuel home.
I started my cooking fire early that day. I kept it going a long time. It had been out for hours when I saw those two figures come walking back up the trail. I had been sitting on the porch rocking and rocking, just waiting for them, praying. I knew Samuel when I saw him. I could tell by the silhouette in the darkness that it was my little boy. I ran to them both like it was Hilton, too but, when I got to them I didn’t know who that man was bringing my boy home. Samuel was trying to explain, but it was all coming out of him at once. I was holding him and hugging and kissing him and trying to hear where my man was.
“I’m Buck Porter, ma’am. I came back here looking for my family and your husband found me this morning. Some Deputies came up on us and knocked out the white man that was with your husband. They knocked him unconscious and took them both to the Dover Jail, I heard them say. I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Buck Porter, for seeing my boy home. Let’s get inside and quiet. Tomorrow, we’ll go to Dover to see about Hilton and Luke.”
This chapter will come in installments (sorry). It was either that or make those interested in reading more, wait. I will work hard, I promise to get the next installment of this chapter out. Installments of this chapter? Maybe, 2 more. Because of this episodic release, I will not put it out on Facebook until the chapter is complete. This is our secret. Thanks!
From me, Robin. To you, my friends.
Did you ever read a book from it’s end and then finish it at the beginning?
No, you haven’t. Don’t do that here, either.
If you want to find out how we all got here I would advise you to scroll down (way down) to Chapter 1 and I do thank you for that.
I especially give thanks if you know me and you understand that we have all grown up here together, between and across the rivers, sharing 200 years of history.
You may find out a lot about yourselves when reading this book. As I create this book, I find out a lot about myself. It has been guided by divine intervention at every page.
God Bless You.
THE LAST MEETING
And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul; neither said any of them that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things common.
The last meeting of the circle of friends that planned, built, and drove the Great Western Furnace into its glory was held on Friday, November 28, 1856. Bringing food and fond memories, they congregated on their own land, a tiny finger of earth nestled safely between the rivers and far away from the hustle of Town and the abuse of commonality. They all lived, peaceably, in that precious land the natives once called the sacred hunting grounds. This isolated haven of wilderness, surrounded by water, had become their sanctuary and the Great Western, a monument to it.
As it did for those who came before them, the land provided everything needed to sustain a long and sufficient life. The land was constant. All that remained was for the people not to come and mess it all up. Sadly, that was happening again. Our togetherness and our hard work now had to adapt and change because it didn’t fit in. Our way of life, the strong way, the logical way, the best way, we thought, and the safest way was not, necessarily, the most beneficial way to the people who were holding the title and the keys to the stocks in Town.
Luke and Brandon were both there and my man, Hilton, was with them. Even the owners made the trip from Pittsburgh. They rode down the Ohio River in style on the Steam Boat Missouri. She carried them as far as Paducah. Then, they caught the Grand Turk and drove her straight up the Cumberland River to Dover. Them folks had real money. They just stayed on the River Boat like they owned it.
The big money people from out of town spent most of the day meeting and talking with Hilton and the Elam boys. They had one table set up for signing papers and another one next to it laid out with some fine Kentucky Bourbon. It had to be good spirits. The drinking table had a nice cloth draped over it with silver trays and it was being poured from some expensive cut crystal pitchers. That Newell man held his glass up to where the sunlight shined right through it and he talked about it like it was something real special before he ever took the first drink. He smelled it first, too, and swirled it around in the glass. He took in the fine flavor, he savored it. Hilton looked like he tried to savor his some too but, mostly, he just swallowed it. He did say it was good sipping whiskey.
The closing papers had been worked on for weeks and all the details ironed out. Signing them now was only a formality. The businessmen made the transitions necessary to shut down the Great Western’s operations. They had full intentions of bringing her back as soon as the conditions warranted.
We didn’t know the Great Western would never burn again. We didn’t know she was already a ghost.
Ultimately, the owners knew the situation. They were abolitionists from Pennsylvania, after all. They knew full well the dangers involved with slavery. It was why they backed the Elams. They liked the Elam approach to the treatment of workers. They wanted quality in their product. They demanded it and they figured out a long time ago that the formula required to get quality included happy and focused workers. They were very disappointed but not surprised, they said, that the end had come. They didn’t expect it to come in two years. Slavery was an issue that would get worse before it got better.
Everyone connected to the Great Western made a small fortune with their pig iron holdings. 104 straight weeks of ever expanding profit paid for the Furnace three times over and the thought of closing it put the owners in a melancholy mood.
They spoke well of the whole operating experience. They called any venture that returned triple their money a successful one and hoped to someday see a return to business in the land by the rivers. Maybe, as early as Spring. There needed to be a downtime, they all agreed. The safety of the workers was paramount. The day operations resumed would depend on the current tension in the County and how long it lasted.
The Great Western was a grand lady. The gathering celebrated her victory. She was safe for the picnic and the weather was unseasonably warm. Her fires had been quenched for seven days and the bricks were cool. The younger children played with their marbles and ate endless food and pie around the structure. The older boys played Town Ball out in front and the matches were quite spirited. Some girls cheered the game and their favorite beau while others happily helped their mothers with the feast.
The adults gathered around the tables and on the table cloths that were spread on the grounds. They were filled with food and laughter and the good times were well remembered by all who were there. God had been good to them and His blessings were bountiful. It showed in their bellies, in their pocketbooks, and on their children’s smiles. Hands were shaken all around and shoulders were held with a celebrated embrace.
Luke said he wasn’t coming if I didn’t make my blackberry pie. He had a piece of it in his hand just about every time I saw him. It was a special togetherness. We were completely disconnected from the rest of that terrible, mean, slave-whipping world. We held our own feeling, as one, and we had one purpose. We protected one another between the rivers.
There was talk going around that Mr. Luke and Mr. Brandon was going to sell their stake in the Great Western. Hilton, sadly, shook his head that it was so. He said we could move back across the River and go back to farming or stay right here and farm. He said we could wait on the Great Western or we could sell everything and move to Chicago, he didn’t care. We had to talk about it, he said. I was excited about all the choices we had, but I didn’t have a clue about which one we would pick. We was just digging in the dirt grapevines ten years ago and now we were talking about moving to Chicago? I just knew that whatever it was, whatever we chose, as long as I was with my man everything would be all right.
Other folks weren’t as confident in the future as I was. They were worried about things changing and about how they would be different. Different, away from the Great Western, was never good. It meant going back. Mr. Luke spoke freely among the assembled men.
“Ladies and Gentleman, to our ownership group represented by Mr. Newell and his family, to Mr. Hilton, and everyone here I thank you all for coming today, on this wonderful day, that the Lord has made for us. Thank you, Ladies, for this abundance of food. I believe I have eaten so much pie that I’m going to turn into a blackberry! I pray that you all have a safe harvest time and prepare well for this winter. Towards that end, towards the preparation of what lies ahead, I have some news I would like to share with you all today.”
Luke took a deep breath and looked around at the faces of those gathered.
“We’ve had a good run men, and ladies. The Great Western has been good for all of us. She has made us prosperous and she made us brave with our successes. But now, we must be smart. These are dangerous and life threatening times that we live in. Make no mistake about that. Our run here wasn’t the long haul of ten and twenty years that we hoped for but it was very good and we’ve learned a lot in these last five years of building and working. We can start this lady back up, and others just like her, when the time is right.”
Proud men with confident smiles agreed. Most were shaking their heads yes and looking at one another with a clearness of direction.
“We’ve come a long way together, friends,” Luke added. “The most important accomplishment that we can claim today is that all of you here are no longer duty bound. My brother and I are most proud to be able to say that, today, all of you here are free men, no longer in bondage. You are free men with free families.”
A loud cheer rose up from the crowd. We were all very happy but, at the same time, we knew not everybody was free. Mr. Luke wasn’t completely right. Jeremiah Porter hadn’t been able to come out to the Furnace to work. He was still on the farm and he still owed a right smart amount on his freedom price. Still, we were happy for everybody else.
“Before now,” Luke delivered, “we always stood our ground. We never backed down from our beliefs or retreated from our positions. Unfortunately, my friends, things have changed. Your lives are now at risk every day simply by coming to work. That is too much strain to bear. Against our owners wishes, but with their full understanding, Brandon and I have sold all of our holdings with the Great Western. Mr. Newell has sold his stake in this project to a firm in Pennsylvania. I’ll not be back after today and I will miss you all very much. I thank you all for your help on this grand experiment. It worked, for a time.”
A load groan came up from those listening to and feeling, his words. But it was a feeling that everybody knew was coming. Luke’s remarks, even though they were expected, fell heavy on everyone’s ears.
“The Committee of Safety rides now,” Luke Elam warned. “Just last week they stopped a free man from Atlanta who was on his way to the Great Western to work. He had heard about us all the way down in Georgia and traveled four hundred miles to get here but when he finally gets to Stewart County, to Parker Town, no less, he is picked up by those ruthless riders. On their accusations of him being a runaway slave, he was robbed, beaten, and thrown into jail. It is incomprehensible. Before that, they burned down Hugh Dotson’s barn, and full of tobacco, because they thought a slave was escaping north, towards the Great Western, and hiding in it. They burnt it down because they said he had a gun. No one was in that barn. The Constable said no one running towards the Great Western would ever be able to hide in it now and he called it all good.
They are targeting our Furnace, friends. Everything they hate starts with us and it will not get better. They have begun monitoring all of our production and our movements, looking for violations of any kind with you workers. They make them up if they can’t find any and it lands you in jail with a beating. Their patrols have closed in on our end of the County and they spend more time up here now than they do across the river towards Clarksville. We’ve decided that to continue our operation puts you all at too great a risk.
As I said, I’ve sold my interest to the highest bidder. Of which, there were many high bids. I recommend that you all do what you will do and you do it now. Collect your monies today and be paid, in full and separate yourselves from this area now. There is not a day to waste. This marks a new era in the life of the Great Western. Many of you may continue working around here and you certainly have that right, but I do not recommend it. You all have the means to leave and if you do not, as free men, see me. The new management has informed me that, due to necessary protective measures that they must take to look out for your safety, if you stay and work you will be paid a far less wage. They said they will have to hire extra security to protect you so I am quite sure that you will have your very own committee of safety, complete with whips, to look out for you, if you know what I mean.”
This statement put bewildered looks on all of the workers. No, they couldn’t work like that, they all agreed.
“This is where Mr. Brandon and myself will go now, back to our tobacco,” Luke relented. “We will let this new age run its course. We ask that all of you come back to the farm with us, if you like. We will farm the crop for a while and plan our options. We have desires to build a Furnace up on Saline Creek, but that must come after a settling period. If you stay here, protect your homes and your family. Brandon and I see grim times ahead.”
Mr. Luke looked sternly in the faces and the eyes of every person there. You would have thought it was your father sitting you down beside him and warning you about the tribulations of life, he was that serious.
“The Committee of Safety aims to stop the escaping of slaves to Kentucky and, believe me, men, they will stop it by all means. They have spilled blood and they will spill more. No one knows how long or how bad or how much will be spilled before they are satisfied. We need to circle our wagons for a time. We need to protect ourselves like never before.”
Times was bad out in the County. We didn’t see all of it but Luke and Brandon did. Somebody new was taken into custody, whipped and even tortured, almost every day. It was cruel and uncivilized. With every new sunrise, it seemed, a new person was picked out from a different community in the County and the Committee of Safety was sent towards that hollow to terrorize, beat, and even arrest them to get them to talk. “Who pays your way,” and, “Where do you get your directions,” was beaten out of them. I was always afraid for my man’s name being mentioned.
Mr. Luke finished up talking to the men. “If you choose not to leave immediately but desire to wait until after the Christmas holiday or even the spring thaw, I beg you to please be aware of the danger and take extra precautions to protect yourselves and your families. Don’t give the Committee any reason to accuse you of being runaways. Keep your free papers with you at all times. Don’t put yourselves in a position of being accused of helping others to escape. Listen to these warnings as they are not without justification. I’ll miss you all. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for everything you have accomplished here and for everything you have accomplished for yourselves. May God bless you and continue to be with you.”
Mr. Luke went directly to Mr. Hilton next.
“Hilton, you must particularly watch yourself. The eyes of the Committee of Safety are on you now. Please do not help anyone go North after today. These woods have ears and they can hear a man passing through. That quiet step you thought you just took was a loud noise just one hollow over and people soon see where those steps came from. Don’t get caught up, Hilton, in staying right here, right now. We would feel much better if you moved back across the river to Saline Creek with us and we offer you that option today. We insist that you move back with us.” Mr. Luke looked at me and touched me on the shoulder, “Elly, it will be safer. You put your foot down and come on back or keep Mr. Hilton close to the house until next year for his own good!”
“Hilton, you will be caught if you help anyone else,” Luke warned. “There are spies out everywhere. They are beating people whenever they suspect a runaway and people are terrified. They are afraid of everything and saying anything. Do nothing until after the new year, Hilton. Let things calm down. Please wait until these beatings stop before you help another runaway across the trail. Do you promise me, Hilton?”
My man looked at me and put his arm around me and I felt strong under his wing. “We promise,” he said. “We’ll decide this week what our plans will be and we will let you know in a few days, a week, at the most. ”
Luke smiled and nodded his head in satisfaction.
Mr. Brandon always liked to make a big thing out of giving a Freedman his papers. He liked the ceremony and, to tell you the truth, so did the Freedman. Mr. Brandon would read off of a piece of paper that told when and where the man had been bought by Cross Elam. He would tell how much his purchase price was and remind everyone in attendance that this price was now repaid in full. He would tell what the dutiful worker did on the farm and tell as many funny stories as he could remember about the man or the woman. Then, he would ask the man to stand up and say a few words, their very first, as a free man. Finally, Mr. Brandon would give all free men of the Elam estate a certificate, their official “Freedom” papers, and a ten dollar gold piece.
Before, when Mr. Luke spoke, I thought about Jeremiah not being free. He was a young man, strong and smart and everybody liked Jeremiah. He had the fortune, or misfortune, however you look at it, of being the last slave purchased by Cross Elam. Jeremiah volunteered to work the farm for the last two years to make the workload easier. He was darn good on the farm and a natural with the animals. He knew what the tobacco needed a week before it needed it. Mr. Brandon had a farm full of that sacred tobacco and he was responsible for all the hard work and sweat that went with it. Jeremiah Porter helped Brandon Elam, most of all, to get it in. He, alone, and the men he directed put out and brought in ten acres of it every year. It was a substantial achievement for any man, but Jeremiah was only 16. Brandon Elam had no other Lieutenants like Jeremiah Porter.
Working at the farm enabled young Mr. Porter to help his mama along. She took sick with a lingering fever and he was all she had to take care of her. He looked after her every morning, most every day at midday, and every night. It was hard on Jeremiah, but everybody helped him in every way that they could. She died on the second anniversary of the Great Western’s operation. Jeremiah stood strong for her at her funeral. His daddy wasn’t there. Nobody knew where he was. At the slave sales, Cross Elam wouldn’t buy him out of spite and the family got split up. They sent his daddy up north. Luke tried to track him once, but the scent went cold in Hopkinsville.
Brandon Elam called Jeremiah Porter up to the front of the Great Western.
“Jeremiah,” he said. “You’ve been patient in waiting to come to the Furnace. You’ve done outstanding work back on the farm all the while hoping to come here to make more money. Unfortunately, there is no longer a Furnace to come to, as we know it. All that being said, we can only come to one conclusion. Jeremiah Porter, Cross Elam bought you at Dover with your mother on March 5th, 1852 when you were 12 years old. You and your mother were purchased for the sum of $900.00. Your mother went to work in the main house and you bonded with every animal on the farm. You tended horses like a seasoned farm hand, you held your half in yoking the oxen, and you suckered tobacco faster than anybody in the row!”
Everybody laughed and Mr. Brandon went on. “We remember, Jeremiah when you first came here and paid too much attention to the ducklings in the pond and they followed you around for days!” More laughter.
“Jeremiah, we can’t bring you here now. It is too dangerous. But we must do right by you. Jeremiah Porter, you are the lone remaining dutiful worker on the Elam farm. As of this day forward your $900.00 freedom debt for you and your late mother, may she rest in peace, is hereby, paid in full. I present to you today, on behalf of my brother and the Elam estate, your certificate of freedom and your Freedman Papers along with a token of our thanks. We hope that you will stay with us on the farm from now until eternity, the ducks need you, (tearful laughter) but from this day forward, it is your choice as a free man to do whatever you wish and to go wherever you choose. Jeremiah, would you like to say anything now, to your friends, as a free man?”
A loud and resounding cheer rose up from the crowd. It echoed through the valley and up toward the roads to Dover. It was probably heard by those damned committee riders but let them hear it, I said. We earned a cheer.
Jeremiah couldn’t say anything. He wanted to but tears just swelled up in his eyes and he was halfway between grinning and smiling and halfway between crying. He was happy and hugging everybody and we was all glad for him and for his mama’s beautiful memory. His eyes said enough for all of us to understand.
He finally spoke. “I don’t know what to say except, thank you. Thank you all for being my friends and my family. Thank you for accepting me and my Mama. She worked hard those first couple of years here and you all made us feel real welcome. Thank you for my mama, for the way you all helped her in her sickness. Thank you for going back and looking for my daddy. I know you tried to find him. I will always call this my home. No matter where I go in my life, I will always claim the land between the rivers as where I am from. You are my family.”
There wasn’t a dry eye at the Great Western. We celebrated freedom there and we celebrated success there. We played there and we ate there. We worked and prayed there and now, we cried there. Even my strong man, Hilton, fought back some tears but he held me tight and I was unashamed. I buried my head, my wet eyes, and my sniffly nose right in my man’s shoulder and I cried like the baby I held in my arms to think we could be so happy and be so free. Hilton was tickling Samuel and they were laughing. It was a good time.
The meeting broke up soon after that. We all went our own ways feeling good about what we had done with ourselves but sad that our good life at the Great Western was coming to an end. I asked Hilton on the way home if he was upset. I knew how much he loved the Great Western.
“Miss Elly,” he said. “I guess I should be, but Mr. Luke called me off to the side while Mr. Brandon was talking to Jeremiah. He pulled me close by his side and handed me this.”
Hilton dropped a leather pouch into my hand. Inside it were ten fifty dollar gold pieces. Mr. Luke and Mr. Brandon had given Hilton back every penny of his five hundred dollars in freedom money that he had earned and paid them since working at the Furnace. They even returned his farm money back to him. I didn’t know what to say.
On the way home we held each other close in the wagon. We smiled some and we cried some. The children slept and I didn’t care how long or how short the trip would be. Time stood still for us on that night, on that wagon. I can still go there, in my mind. On a crisp night, with the stars overhead, I can still feel my man’s coat beside me. It comforts me.
Along with our emotions, something else was in the air that night. A scary coldness. An unknown feeling. It was like something or someone was out there in the clear darkness, waiting. Waiting for us to make a mistake. I worried that everything was too good to be true. Was life supposed to be this easy? Was the suffering over now? Could we just move away from all the sadness?
We didn’t really know what to expect so we expected anything. When it was rumored the next day that Mr. Luke and Mr. Brandon were so worried about what might happen that they changed all of their money into gold, we took notice. When it was heard that they were burying it in secret places on their farm, we took a warning.
End of Chapter 7
THE POWERS THAT BE (Part 2)
He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.
“Three Kings Ace high.”
Thomas Opson exhaled deeply after he showed it. It was an exhaustive breath that revealed just how much he had riding on this bet. His moist, nervous hands were still shaking, but he hid them well. This was all of his money. This was everything he had. He was so far into debt now, from losing at this poker game, that on this particular hand, on this particular night, he had gone the fool’s distance to try and win it all back at once. He bet the Deed to the family farm on one strong hand. Thomas knew that by bringing this Deed, the key to the memory of all his mother and father once held dear, it could end up in the middle of Howard Claiborne’s table. He didn’t care. He still had to bring it. He couldn’t help himself. He could raise no more scratch, after all. He could sell nothing else because there was nothing left to sell. But he was alright, he told himself, as he downed another shot of rye and gritted his teeth. He was just stringing these derelict old men along. He only needed his money and his title to hold out a little longer until the cards could come back around to him. He knew they were coming, he could feel it, and now, with this hand, they had finally found their way back. This hand of cards was the one that he had been waiting for. He had to bet the farm to see it, but it would all be worth it in the end. These three kings would save his Deed and his life and he could go back home with his dignity and a pocketful of power.
The weekly game looked impressive now. It always took on a more sanctified meaning when a man’s life was hanging in the balance. The other men sitting at the table had been waiting on Opson to play this particular hand for a long time, too, and they very much enjoyed the moment.
Opson’s long lost Deed to his long forgotten home was now a very valuable piece of paper sitting propped up on a mountain of cash, coin, and slave gold all within the reach of Howard Claiborne. He wasn’t about to let it get away. Claiborne had worked too long and too hard, he had invested too much time and too much money, to lose this prize now. It capped, nicely, the remainder of everything young Thomas Opson owned. More importantly to Claiborne, it was all of his daddy’s holdings, as well.
The farm had become bare and impoverished under Opson’s care and it was a shell of it’s former, “Major and Anna Opson,” grandeur but Thomas cared nothing of that past pomp. He never did. He didn’t have to work for it or pay for it so why should he care for it. It was just barter to him.
He only knew that another shot of rye and a winning hand was all that stood between him and a return to his well-deserved way of life.
This new life of Thomas Opson, the poor, working man’s life, was unlike any that he had ever known and he didn’t like it. Living a life with nothing provided, living a life where nothing was made available to simply stuff into his pockets, was completely foreign to him. It was beneath him not to have his desires planned and laid out for the day. His whole life had been a life of privilege. No one ever told him no and if they did he would simply ask another. He was given every advantage to succeed. Business opportunities waited around every corner. Even with this leg up, so to speak, he failed many times over. His mistakes would have sunk most men, but his father’s financial success sustained him through all of his poor decisions. Failure upon failure was cloaked with the protection of living a charmed life.
But now, with the passing of time and foolish repetitiveness, things were different. Opson could not bring in the revenue that he needed to sustain him. He spent more than he made. He outlived his inheritance. He had to ask how much things cost. It was just a matter of time before economics caught up with him.
Howard Claiborne knew this. His eye had been on the Opson estate for a long time.
Thomas Opson no longer straddled the fiery black stallion that he was accustomed to riding. His personal saddle and tack had been sold long ago to buy whiskey or to satisfy gambling debts. Now, he rode a fair filly to the weekly Claiborne game. She was a respectable nag, but she had nowhere near the status of a man’s horse. King Gatlin sold him the filly for a less than decent amount. Gatlin later said in private circles that he made up the difference in price with a full measure of satisfaction.
Only Amos Green was left of the slaves and he lived alone in the slave’s quarters. This was his home. He had nowhere else to go. There was no garden for him to tend, no potatoes to dig or store. There was no livestock to keep. Amos stayed busy chopping wood, drawing water, and taking care of Thomas Opson. He sold some of the wood he stacked up to keep himself in food. Opson didn’t care. All he needed was somebody to keep him from freezing to death in the winter. Sometimes he drank too much but he wasn’t stupid. He was going to take care of himself and Amos Green was his protector.
Thomas Opson lived alone now in the main house, empty of furniture. It rang with hollow echoes whenever people inside of it spoke. Except for him and Amos Green, no one else came to the Opson house. That was fairly predictable. Thomas Opson had no friends. None other, that is, than those he paid well for their time and even that money was running thin. The stables remained empty since Olive Retterree-Smith was killed in them three years before. The once, well-trimmed trails had grown up with a new brush and the ground had become thick with fallen tree branches and scattered rocks and occasional riders preferred to dodge them rather than clear them out of the way.
The idea of cleaning and clearing those trails or, for that matter, any part of that farm, was far from the mind of Thomas Opson right now. Another shot of Howard Claiborne’s easy rye chased those images right out of his head.
On this long anticipated night of gambling, he had Howard Claiborne and his money right where he wanted them, square, in his sights. The old man’s money was in that pot now and it was a life changer. This big pay-off would be the end of all the bad times for Thomas Opson. He promised himself that. After this night, he would go back home with his Deed and his fortune. All told, it was a $50,000 treasure laying on that table in front of him and he felt confident it would soon be his.
He almost couldn’t contain his smile.
Only he and Claiborne were left in the game. The other three participants in the hand folded. Their roles were complete. Opson believed they thought he was bluffing and he snickered inside to think he had outsmarted them and forced them to throw in once they realized he wasn’t. If Howard Claiborne could beat this hand he deserved to win it, he told himself, but that wasn’t going to happen. Not tonight. He had worked too hard to get these witless players back into his sights. He had them all in them, once, in those first few months of play. Now, he finally found himself looking back down on them and Thomas liked the view from the top. He picked up a solid hand, just in the nick of time, and it was sorely needed. He drew a bead on all of them at the table but only Howard Claiborne remained. Thomas closed in for the kill. It was just like shooting birds, he thought. Soon, he would collect his trappings and go home.
The weekly poker game at the Claiborne compound started out well for Thomas. When he first began to attend the very private game he was a winner. He won nearly $5,000 during play that first winter and he frolicked in the bouquet of new money. He bought five new slaves and promptly sold them for a hefty profit. He bought a pretty little filly and made a fine gift of it to a lady friend he desired in Cumberland City. He began looking forward to taking Howard Claiborne and his rich friend’s money on a regular basis. He fancied himself to be a sort of riverboat gambler. He acted like it, anyway, with the fanciful airs he put on. He bought the gambler hat and the gambler coat and vest and he sported them well. He smoked a fine cigar in the role.
Then, as things usually go at another man’s table, Opson won a little and lost a little at the weekly game. This went on for some time. All along, he began to learn the ways of Howard Claiborne and his circle of men. These were the men who held the title of Dover. Claiborne owned and operated the Dover Furnace and Judge Virgil Kaney was his right-hand man in Town. Dover Furnace Keeper Mathias Boswell was a stern taskmaster and severe administer of punishment against work-weary slaves but not much pumpkin at the poker table. Thomas Opson thought they were all easy men to read. He had, after all, taken $5,000 of their money before. He had ridden those River Boats to Nashville. He had seen how real riverboat gamblers worked a table. He knew what he was doing, he said, and he continued to dangerously risk even more of his wealth looking for the big return. Howard Claiborne appreciated this kind of unbridled recklessness and enjoyed having Opson at his table.
So now, for Thomas, after nearly two years at the game, things had taken a drastic turn for the worst. Six months before he lost $5,000 in just one week. Now, he was down a total of $20,000 and his daddy’s farm was on the line. He really didn’t mean for it to get away from him like this. He even lost his capital for trading flesh of any kind on the blocks in Town and there was no credit for Thomas in the poor house.
Opson drank more as his losing streak was extended and the rye helped him to forget just how deeply he had fallen into debt. He didn’t know he hit the bottom until he found himself looking up out of the hole. His daddy never prepared him for this view. The view looking up with no one there to give you a hand was scary for Thomas. He cursed his parents for that.
Howard Claiborne knew everyone at his table very well. Thomas Opson was his mark and all sitting there knew it. The game was on. It might take two years to complete but the end was never in question. It had been signed, sealed, and delivered long ago.
Claiborne led his mark along for a few months and let him taste a little gambling sweetness. Part of the fun, Claiborne mused. But it was a rigged game, after all. Only the mark was unaware of the crookedness and it was only a matter of time before he was ruined or, to his credit, made his escape. He could run or play, Howard Claiborne didn’t care which way the mark chose to go. That specific seat at his table never suffered for the lack of a willing participant.
“Three Aces King high,” Howard Claiborne apologized. “What a hand,” he exclaimed, wiping his brow and face with a clean white handkerchief he pulled from his vest. “You had me worried Opson. I thought you had a Full House.”
“You’ve got to be joking, Claiborne!” Virgil Kaney proposed with a very surprised look on his face. Virgil Kaney was but one stooge at the Howard Claiborne table of thieves.
“No, not joking. I drew the third Ace.” Claiborne provided as he looked across the table at his broken man.
Thomas Opson sat stunned and staring at the table. The shaking in his hand that he was able to control before had now gotten away from him and he had to hold it down under his leg to keep it still. He held his hand and heard only the sound of his heartbeat. He didn’t know what to do. He had never been beaten this low before. He didn’t know if he could get up from his chair and didn’t know where he would go if he did. He felt sick.
Howard Claiborne was well aware of his latest victim’s feelings. He had broken many men and Thomas Opson was just the most current. He broke them all in typical fashion, mostly the same way, and even though he liked him, Thomas was no different, he reminded himself, he didn’t care who his daddy was. He played him against his own greed. He let him win a little, he strung him along. It was Claiborne’s favorite way of destroying men. This way, he got to enjoy doing it. It didn’t bother him so much that it was cheating when he could blame the loser’s ruination and destruction on his own greed. In this way, it became fair sport to him. Besides, these little men like Thomas Opson with their paltry, one farm holdings couldn’t break him. Howard Claiborne was a Furnace Owner. He knew of the power and money ten times more than what Thomas Opson understood.
“I’ll tell you what I will offer, Thomas, because I do like you,” Claiborne proposed as he picked up the Opson family deed in his hands and looked it over. “I hope there are no ill feelings towards all of this. To show you how bad I feel I will give you seven days from today to come up with the money to buy your farm back, no questions asked. This farm is worth $15,000 dollars in its current shape. Bring me the money within a week and you can have it back, Opson, no questions asked. Otherwise, I’ll need to be getting in there to do a little cleanup and I would appreciate it if you could have all of your belongings out by then. I understand you have one slave remaining on your property?” Claiborne had already been surveying his pending acquisition.
“If you can’t come up with the money in seven days make sure the slave stays on the farm.” Howard Claiborne dismissed Opson with that and he was escorted outside to his filly. Opson had nothing left to offer Claiborne. Why else would he remain in his house?
As he rode his filly out the gates of Howard Claiborne’s ranch Opson realized that he didn’t have any more rye in his coat pockets. The Claiborne estate had just gotten more powerful and he was out of business in Stewart County in one week. Thomas Opson was mad that he was out of rye and he was mad that he had lost all of his money but most of all he was mad because his daddy didn’t leave him more.
When he got home, he found one last half bottle of spirits in the house and he swigged it down with a desperate silence. He sat not as a man contemplating his own demise or the fight back from it but more as of a rat cornered, looking for the bite that would set him free. The last thing Thomas Opson remembered before he passed out, penniless and homeless, was the fact that he was finished as a man in Stewart County. He was worth less than dirt. At least the dirt had a value. He would have to work now for a living and he would have to be keenly aware of the price of things lest he could not afford to buy them. It terrified him to know that he was equal, or less than equal now, to everyone else.
Howard Claiborne made the trip to Town on Saturday morning with a zesty little hitch in his unholy step. He had a new Deed to file away in his collection and that always put him in a satisfied frame of mind. He and the Judge had a fine, made to order breakfast in their private booth at the Dover Cafe.
“Let’s go outside, Virgil, and smoke on these fine cee-gars.” Howard Claiborne had concluded all of his business for the day. That included paying old Virg’ $3,000 dollars for his part in the elaborate “game” that was used to fleece the ignorant Thomas Opson.
“He could have left when he was $5,000 dollars ahead, Howard.” The Judge reminded Claiborne. “They never do. He sure was shaking.”
“Frankly, I would have thought more of him if he had left,” Claiborne added. “Of course, I would have gotten my money back somewhere. You know that to be true, Judge.” Howard Claiborne laughed. “I like that boy, though. He is a ruthless sob.”
“Sir, how are you doing this morning? Good morning, Sir. Is there a place nearby with fresh water where we can rest our livestock and where my family might take leave of our travels? We’ve split from the wagon party to camp for a few days.” The voice was directed at Claiborne and Kaney as they sat on the front porch of The Dover Cafe. They looked to be the perfect people to ask observing, as they were, the Town and enjoying their tobacco. The questions came from an inappropriately dressed pioneer sitting on a mule drawn wagon and next to a slender woman of strong heritage. A younger daughter peeked through from between them at the old men on the porch.
The wagon was loaded to the top, front and back, with ware and tack and the iron hanging on it clanged, clattered and jangled with every turn of it’s wheels. A yoke of oxen in the back and four mules in the front meant that this was a real family of settlers. A fine Brown Derby Stallion with white socks was towing alongside.
“You got yourself a fine rig there, settler,” Claiborne admired the whole outfit. He sized it up with a covetous heart before he even considered answering the question. He was always looking for the next mark and a seat had just come open at his table. “Where you folks, headed?” Claiborne smiled on the inside thinking about how funny the foreign man sounded when he spoke.
“We’re going to St. Lou,” the pioneer woman chirped up. “My husband here is a fine silversmith. We are traveling from Savannah, Georgia to old St. Lou to set up a silversmith and leather shop. From there, we’re going to send those gold seekers westward. Yes, sir! We’ll send those California dreamers across the frontier, yes we will, and they’ll have the finest silver and leather available to hold them on their trip. My man is a fine silversmith.”
“Yes, I understand that,” the Judge ruled.
“I have some gold Dutch ingots that I would like to trade in at your bank, Sir. If you offer that service,” the naive traveler revealed.
“Well, that won’t be till Monday now,” Claiborne advised as he looked at his pocket watch. “Being in the wilderness as we are here, you understand that our exchange rate for Dutch slave gold will be a little higher than back in Clarksville.”
“We came through Dickson, friend. And this is honest family money earned through honest silversmithing and trading,” the pioneer insisted.
“All right,” Claiborne released a large puff of his cigar smoke off the railing of the porch. “Head down the river, that’s going North, out of Town and pretty soon you’ll come up on a string of farms. Pick one out and see if they’ll let you tender your stock there for a while. You come on back Monday and we’ll see about trading in some of that Dutch gold. I wouldn’t tell too many people about that, Missy. This is rough country, you know.”
“We are God-fearing folks, Mister. We trust in the Lord to see us through to good ‘ol St. Lou! But, thank you, just the same. Get on up, mules! We’ll be back, Monday, Lord willing.” The hopeful adventurer whipped the reins of the mules and they moved forward, North, down the river and out of town.
Opson woke up to the low, bellow grunting sounds of Oxen off his front porch and it irritated him. He squinted through one eye and asked the ill-advised settlers if they knew what time it was?
“One-thirty, by my pocket watch,” the male settler answered. “Sir, we are sorry to disturb you,” he added. “We are seeking a place to tender our animals. Would you be obliged to allow us to camp at your creek’s side? We’ll need to stay and have access to water for our animals for three or four nights. We’ll require nothing else other than a safe haven to use as our rest and fresh water for our barrels. We can pay you in gold or silver or we can convert it to cash for our stay. Can you help us, Sir?” We are bound for old St. Lou!
Opson heard the pioneer mention gold, silver, and cash. He spied the belongings of the family and thought it to be a fine way for someone to start out new. They must have everything they needed, he gained, to start off fresh anywhere in the Country.
“You have a lot invested here, sir. It’s a splendid way to travel.” Opson knew when to put on airs and he looked, at once, interested. “You have a lot of iron on your wagon, Mister. Your yoke is strong and your oxen are healthy. You have good mules with fine tack. Your load is simple, but it is very sturdy. I am interested if you don’t mind my asking, in what you hope to find in St. Louis? Do you have a trade? I have recently had the interest to visit there,” Opson lied with that last statement and, if he were telling the truth, it would be his last resort to escape to St. Louis. Opson knew he stood out like a sore thumb in the city. His money soon parted ways with him whenever he visited there.
The reality for Thomas Opson now was that he had no money and in six days he would have no farm.
“I am a silversmith. I am a simple watch maker, a tinkerer.” We hope to provide tack and silversmithing to all the wagoners heading west across the great frontier. I will build my watches and create my silver in St. Lou as I sell leather to the pioneers. Everything we have is here with us. All of our hopes and the hopes of our children ride with us,” the simple man told. “We have staked our future in the growth of this country.”
“You folks are more than welcome to stay here, on my farm.” Opson offered.
He couldn’t see any reason for going any further west in this country. According to Opson, it was all just wilderness out there. He thought these people were fools. He looked their holdings over closely.
“Just ease your animals and wagon up around that barn yonder about a half mile up the road until you come to the creek. Anywhere up on the other side of that hill and alongside the creek is fine. Set your camp up along in there. I’ll come up after supper and we’ll discuss a small payment, for my troubles, if you don’t mind. I may be interested in moving west, myself. Maybe you could give me some advice. Maybe we could talk about it over a shot of rye if you are so inclined.”
“Well, maybe one,” the trusting outsider smiled.
Thomas Opson was at the end of his rope and all out of ideas. He had nothing left to lose. He knew a dark man who owed him a lot of money and at least one evil favor. This man lived down a row of oak trees going west out of Town and Thomas would be calling on him now. There was always one sure way to get ahead in the wilderness. It generally meant bloodshed but Thomas Opson was not above it. The survival of the fittest was all he knew. He would need help. Certain people knew that the man from down the oak tree row wasn’t afraid of blood. He was known to spill blood for money. Thomas would call in a long overdue favor and have to pay nothing for it.
Such are the deeds of unscrupulous men. For them, in their evil ways, the only art is in not getting caught. These two men had never come close to getting caught.
Thomas Opson’s history was dark. The man from down the oak tree row was about to help make it darker.
The settler, the awkward pioneer, was a slightly bashful man. He was well educated and it showed in his speech. He wore a fancy shirt and it made him look out of place in the back woods of Tennessee and Kentucky. He would probably not be well appreciated until he reached St. Louis. Once there, he could congregate with men of his own skill, with men of his own knowledge and craft. The scholarly voyager had studied hard his whole life and had invested well his Dutch inheritance. He spent his entire youth and most of his adult life refining his talents and over time he became a master silversmith, a jeweler, and a precise watchmaker. He was brilliant at working all of those crafts, but he was a fish out of water on a back washed creek in the Town with mean eyes.
His wife was the accountant. She was the investor, the speculator, and the decision maker of the family. On her insistence, they had taken the safer route to St. Louis and were now, with just a few days rest ahead of them, entering the final leg of their journey. She was a proud and strong woman. She was smart, too. She had her family’s life ahead of her and she knew it. Soon, she prayed, they would meet their destiny.
“Evelyn, you help mother gathering fire wood and I’ll set up a corral for the animals. We’ll start a good fire here by this creek and settle in for a few days before we make our final push to St. Lou. I like this area, Evelyn. It’s very nice here by the rivers and hunting and fishing is plentiful, I am sure. We must be sure to visit this way again if we are to send for your cousins after us.” The unpolished pioneer roped his corral together and tended the livestock toward the water.
The young girl fired a howling straight and sharp arrow towards a dry heap of brush and sticks 30 steps away. It found it’s target and sucked into the wooden branch’s side with a zip and a vibrating thud. Her bow was seasoned hickory made by the Cherokee tribe of Northeast Georgia and she could hit her mark at 30 paces with ease. She was never without her bow.
The ladies had become very efficient in building fires all along the trail to St. Lou. They knew how to light off the chaff and straw from the sparks of the flint stone. They learned how to listen for the crackle and pop and knew exactly where to place the tiny dry sticks and stems. They knew how to properly stack the bark or kindling on top of that and let it all catch up into a rousing flame. They accumulated a fine stand of dried wood and it would easily last the night. The added glow of safety from the fire’s flame was a low priority and one they hardly considered. This was a safe place. The mother and the 16-year-old daughter surrounded the fire with stones.
“Let’s fry up some of that ham over this fire tonight, ladies,” the proud pioneer granted. We can make this load a little lighter on the mules for the last part of the trip.”
“Finally! We can almost see our destination and the last moves toward it are here.” The odds making wife had been more than a little nervous to leave the wagon train in Dickson, but an argument about leadership had stalled their progress. This family leader decided to press their wagon onward through the presumed safety of a well populated, iron furnace country. Traveling this route, she hoped, they could dot and spot their way up through the wilderness all the way to Paducah. A well-deserved rest, however, was in order before the final push. Each step was like a very calculated chess move to her. She wasn’t ready to celebrate just yet, but she did allow herself a smile to be another step closer to old St. Lou. She knew that once they arrived there they would find the successful life that they had prepared for, the life they were looking for.
Amos Green smelled that country ham cooking a mile away. He followed his nose right to it. Dogged if it weren’t coming from up on his creek! He thought, at first, it was Mister Thomas cooking something back there by that creek, but that was just craziness. He was less surprised to see a family of settlers easing around the big fire.
“That ham sure does smell good, folks. Does Mister Thomas know you folks is up on his creek?” Amos Green didn’t care about the answer to the question. He hadn’t had country ham in a long time. Two Christmases ago, best he could remember, over at the Gatlin farm.
“My name is Amos Green. I work for Mister Thomas. I cut wood, too. If ya’ll like I can keep you in all the wood you need for that fire. I can bring you a whole load of wood. I’d do it just for a piece of that ham, too.” Amos bartered.
“Sounds like a fair deal to me,” the ham frying pathfinders agreed. “Eat now, work tomorrow.”
“Just to be sure,” the settlers joked, “Are you sure you’re not just a drifter drawn up here by the smell of this fine home cooking to parlay a piece of our ham for your belly and then be gone as quick as a summer morning’s dew?”
“Oh, no sir.” Amos pleaded. “I do work this land for Thomas Opson. It is looking a little poorly right now, but she has seen better times.”
“Come on in by the fire, Amos Green. You are welcome here.”
Amos beamed and he sidled up next to the fire with the smell of fried country ham hanging in the air. He would work extra hard to keep this family in wood tomorrow. The way to Amos Green’s heart was through his stomach. He broke bread with this family and now he owed them to fulfill his promise.
“What kind of country is this, Amos?” the simple pilgrim asked. “It looks very nice.”
“This is rough country, Mister,” Amos said it with a shrug of his shoulders and a dip of his chin. He had a shudder in his voice that was evoked by hidden chills coming from inside his coat. “It’s okay if you live here, if you know somebody, or if you are related. You’ll get by alright, then. But if you ain’t from around here this is a hard place to get a foot hold in. People are hard here and some of them, they mean, too. They were some good ones around here one time, but most of them done died off by now.” Amos looked into the fire as he spoke. “Its cold in the winter here and powerful hot in the summer. Best to have your crops in early ’cause you can’t never tell when the rains gonna fall so hard the creek gets washed away. I’ve seen this creek right here plumb over that bank and backed up to the barn down by the house.”
“That Opson man seems a little distant, pilgrim. He seems a little put on.” The pioneer woman called her man a pilgrim and it was funny, but her senses were warning her. “Let’s keep our distance from him and leave a day earlier than we had planned. We can catch up with the wagon party in Paducah and we can all parade into old St. Lou in style.”
“That’s a good reckoning, Miss. You and your family move on to your wagon party as soon as you can. You’ll be safer with them.” Amos Green had instincts, too. He knew this family was rich. They had means. They had silver on everything. They all had nice cotton clothes and good shoes to go around. They had iron and food and the best canvas topped wagon ever seen to pass through these parts. Amos knew they acted proper. They weren’t so hungry at suppertime. They took their time at hunting things up. They talked about it first. Amos wasn’t used to this kind of friendship. He felt like it had a calming effect on him. He liked these good people.
Amos was about to tell the wagoners the best and shortest trail to take to get through to Kentucky when the crack of a whip was heard snapping beside the steps of a burdened filly laboring up the creek.
It was Thomas Opson come calling.
“Remember what I said, pilgrim.” The settler told her man. She looked at her daughter, too. “Keep your lips tight.”
Opson splashed up the creek to camp and dismounted. He distanced himself from the humble filly. “Well, you folks have made a very nice camp here. You have everything you need, it seems, and by the smell of that fine aroma you have a good supper, too.”
“I see you have met Amos.” Amos started for the barn.
“Thank you for the ham, Ma’am. I’ll have your wood here first thing in the morning.” Amos knew his place when Mr. Thomas was around. He was soon out of sight.
“I hope your animals are well watered, Sir. And Miss, I thank you for feeding my man servant.” Thomas encouraged the settlers with a smile. He wanted them to be at ease.
“Your man said he is bringing wood for us tomorrow. We will stay two days and then continue our journey. We thank you, Sir, for allowing us to rest upon your land. What is your charge for us, Sir, for two days lodging?” The lady was speaking.
“We’ll say two dollars a night for two nights. Does that sound fair?” Opson figured.
The lady thought it was a little high, but she knew the wood would save them a lot of work. “Agreed,” she said.
“Would you like some ham, sir?” I cured it myself.
“No, thank you, Miss. But I will have that shot of rye if you have it.”
“I’m sorry, sir. We have no rye.”
“No bother,” Opson waved it away. I would like to discuss other business, he imposed. “If you need anything or if you need to barter gold I can get you a better rate than anyone else in Town. Did you need to exchange some gold?”
“Not much,” the settlers gave up.
“Think about it.” Tomorrow I’d like to look at some of your silversmithing if you don’t mind.” Opson tipped his hat and towed his filly off in the direction of Amos Green.
“Don’t show him the gold tomorrow, husband. Maybe a watch or a silver trinket chest but keep the ingots well hidden as I do not trust him. After what the negro shared with us of the untidiness of the grounds, he seems a little too pushy. He seems desperate. And he looks at Evelyn in a common way,” his wife added. “I don’t like him.”
Thomas Opson had a visitor stay that night with him. The man from down the oak tree row was a hunter, by nature, and a killer. He tracked everything from mountain lions to humans. Thomas Opson had him tracking a family of settlers tonight. The man from down the oak tree row watched their every move. He looked for the gold box. He looked for the money. Had they hidden it yet? On the trail most would hide their valuables away from the wagon until they were loaded up for travel. All through the night, nothing stirred in the wagon. It was as if the wagon was staring back at the night. Neither blinked. Early in the morning, two hours before daybreak, the spy caught his prey. The tinkerer went up a certain trail away from the wagon and brought back with him a velvet bag.
The hunter slipped backed to Thomas Opson and told him the news. The gold was up that trail. He knew which one, how far, and probably just about exactly where it was.
“Tonight, we act,” Opson ordered. “I’ll spend the day occupying them with kindness. You sharpen your knives. Well after dark, when all is quiet, we will separate the husband and tie him up. Make sure to gag his mouth so he can’t scream. Then, we will tie up and gag the girls. If we can’t find the gold we will use them against one another to find it and then you will use your knives to quickly kill the mother and father. Once the first blood is spilled we can not stop. We must finish the job quickly. I will kill the girl later and dispose of the remains. You will go back to your house on the oak tree row and your debt to me is forgiven.” Opson spoke with a cold-blooded calculation in his veins. “Be back here at dusk with your knives and wait for me.”
Amos Green brought wood early in the morning. It was a big wagon load, dried, and busted up with kindling, too. He ate another piece of ham with a biscuit after the wood was unloaded and he thought he was in hog heaven.
Thomas Opson showed up early on that Sunday morning, too. He kept the pilgrims busy moving the stock and inspecting the fine workmanship of their prairie schooner. He finally got around to asking to see about the ware.
The silversmith pulled a magnificent silver piece of work from his blue velvet bag. “Here is something I tinker with,” he said. “The drawers open and you can put the trinkets inside. This is my own hallmark stamped on the bottom. This, here, is a watch I made for my father but he passed last year so I guess it is mine now.”
“This is very fine workmanship, silversmith. Did you really do this? Are you capable of this? I am surprised.” Thomas Opson couldn’t grasp the quality of greatness even as he was standing immersed in it.
“Yes, sir. I assure you. I created these pieces,” the proud smithy chuckled to himself. Oh, to be in old St. Lou, he dreamed, where art could be appreciated and men were not so callously desperate and foul smelling.
“Have you thought about your gold transfer, pilgrim? I leave for Clarksville in the morning and can be back with your exchange Tuesday, in time to see you off.” Opson was not dropping the subject.
“We think we’ll wait on the transfer of gold, sir. We have enough food and water now to see us through to the outskirts of Paducah. But we do thank you for your care. There is a matter of four dollars and here you are, sir. Thank you.” The woman always did the talking and she did the paying, too.
“Well, I’m off then,” Opson responded as he accepted the tender. “Thank you and if I don’t return before you leave it was a pleasure having you here. Enjoy your last night on our farm and I bid you safe travels.”
Opson tipped his hat and mounted his filly to ride away. The settlers breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed, understanding that he was gone from their lives for good.
Thomas Opson sent Amos Green, along with a dollar, to get some feed at the Feed Store on the south side of Dover. He instructed him to return in the morning.
Just after dark a large commotion was made coming up from the barn. Opson was back on his filly and riding hard towards the settler’s camp.
“Put on your shoes, pilgrim.” Opson yelled. “There’s a fire in Town and the whole square is going to burn if we don’t get it put out. We need every man available to man the bucket brigade.”
“We’ll all go,” the lady volunteered.
“No, just men,” Opson schooled. “You two stay here.”
The willing pioneer threw on his boots and rode his horse bareback with Opson toward the Town. After they were past the barn and out of camp’s sight the man from the house on oak tree row jerked up a rope between two trees on the trail and the silversmith was caught by it and thrown violently to the ground. It knocked him out and almost broke his neck. Thomas Opson and his associate tied the camper up and gagged his mouth.
The hunter slipped up behind the girls as Opson led his kidnapped victim back into camp. When the adept woman saw here husband tied up and walking in front of Opson she knew they were in trouble. Before she could scream or think to run the dark man leaped from the cover of trees and put a sharp knife to her back and a strong arm around her neck. He began to tie her hands and feet.
“Sit still, young’un or your mother won’t look so good.” The man from down the oak tree row threatened the young girl.
“Quiet, Missy and no one gets hurt. Where is the gold? Opson demanded of the young girl, but she was wasn’t talking.
“We’ll tell you where it is and no one gets hurt, right?” the mother begged. “We’ll just be on our way. We’ll give it to you.”
“No one gets hurt. On my mother’s grave, I swear to that,” Opson replied.
The lady motioned to the girl and she ran up the trail and came back with a large box. It was filled with Dutch ingots of gold, and gold coins from all the old countries and was almost more than she could carry. Opson calculated that there was at least enough gold, silver, and jewelry in that box to pay for a farm.
“We have what we came for.” Opson nodded to the man with the sharp knives. The dark man grabbed for the mother and, at once, drove his dagger deep into her back and into her heart. Then, he pulled it out and slit her throat before she could fall to the ground. Opson guarded the box and the girl and the man from the oak tree row quickly walked over to the bound pioneer. He slit his throat as a seasoned farmer with a sharp blade would slit the throat of a hog. It was clean, thorough, and the skillful tinkerer was lost forever to the Stewart County night.
In a second the young girl realized what was happening. She screamed and bolted, retrieving her quiver and bow on the dead run from its perch, but the hunter closely pursued. After about 30 paces she felt his breath on her and she turned, in a spectacular spin, to whip him harshly on the side of his cheek with her cane-like bow. It was a slashing blow landing both hickory branch and twine to its target and it burned into the skin of the oak tree row man. It knocked him off his stride, if only for a moment. The true tempest had time for one last pull of her string. The final arrow was let loose and flew towards Opson just as the hunter pounced, with his knife, on top of her. His lunge knocked her aim off, ever so slightly. Thomas watched the flight of the air piercing arrow all the way from where it left her bow. As if in slow motion he watched the entire arc and aim of the sharp tipped hickory stick until it burned into his left shoulder. He could not change its path and he could not move his body. It flew too fast and he moved too slow. The arrow stuck in him and he dropped the box of gold. He writhed in pain and clutched the bloody stick and it could not have been truer or more painful had it been launched from the bow of a proud Indian Brave.
Evelyn had fought the good fight for her mother and for her father. She fought the good fight for herself, too. Now, she lie on the ground bleeding, with a dagger run through her side, another victim of the County.
“I wish I had the time to devote to you, Missy,” Opson spoke to the dying girl as she looked at the end of everything she knew lying in front of her. Her last arrow was embedded deeply in her killer’s shoulder. That would leave her mark, she understood. The dark stranger with the striped and bloody cheek held her neck open and bare. With one deliberate, painstakingly slow motion, Opson sliced her from ear to ear.
It was all over very quickly. Three lives had been taken and they weren’t coming back. No one else was the wiser. Opson had just acquired a lot of gold and silver and, to him, that was all that mattered. Three more lost lives meant nothing to him. He was used to killing now.
He piled the bodies on that fancy wagon and drove them deep into the woods to where no one could see them. He burned it all up in a ritual fire and laughed at the simpleton’s skeletons as he poked at their remains on the following day.
Amos Green questioned why the settlers left early. The blood was dusted up pretty good, but Amos Green was no fool. He spotted it. Later, he found the ruins of the wagon and the skeletons, too. What could he do? He prayed for their souls. He never ate a piece of country ham again.
On Tuesday, Thomas Opson made his way directly to Howard Claiborne.
“I have $10,000, Mr. Claiborne,” Opson proclaimed. I was able to raise it out of Kentucky. It’s all I have. Will you accept it and allow me to stay on my farm?”
“It’s my farm, Opson. I have the Deed to it and it is transferred.” Claiborne reminded. “You have cash, Opson?”
“No, it is in gold and silver. Look for yourself.”
Howard Claiborne inspected the contents of Thomas Opson’s large box of precious metals.
“Where did you come across these Dutch ingots, Opson? This is slave trade gold. And that is a fine white socked, brown stallion you now straddle. Did he come from Kentucky, too?”
“I sold slaves for that gold, Howard. They are from a deal I had forgotten about in Kentucky. The silver added in there with it makes for a tidy sum of $10,000! Will you accept it as a down payment on the property? You said no questions asked.”
“Come, sit with me, Thomas Opson.” Howard Claiborne directed.
Claiborne spoke so only Opson could hear.
“I know where those gold Dutch ingots came from, Opson and by the looks of your shoulder, someone put up a pretty good fight against you. I don’t know how you came into possession of the gold or what happened to that family of settlers that owned them, but I do know that I have them now. I will take this gold and allow this as one-half payment towards my farm. You may stay on the property for now, but you still owe me $10,000 to have your Deed returned.”
“How will I pay you, Howard?”
“You will work for me, Opson. I need a new Constable. The old one has not worked out. I own you now, Opson. Never forget that. I know I can find that family if I look hard enough and I can put you under that jail. You owe me $10,000. You work for me now. You are my new Constable. You can work out of the Court House in Town and the Jailhouse and people can believe you are somebody special, but you check with me every day to see what I need. You understand that, Opson? Every day! Is that clear, boy?” Claiborne showed him the badge.
Thomas Opson put it on and went to look over his new office. He went by the livery stable and traded the Brown Derby for a fine black stallion, no questions asked, and all on the courtesy of Howard Claiborne. Opson drank for free in the tavern. He was a Howard Claiborne hired gun now. He took his marching orders from him every day. He assembled a group of criminals, a committee of riders, to accompany and protect him. His right-hand man was the dark stranger who lived at the end of the oak tree row.
Thomas Opson was back in control now. His power was unchallenged, unquestioned, and his laws weren’t written down in any books.
End of Chapter 6.
The Powers That Be (Part 1)
But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.
Thomas Opson was a mean child. Even the dogs shied away from him. When he was only 8 years old, to hear his saintly mama tell it, whenever Thomas came near, the dogs would tuck their tails and run for the safety of the dark underside of the porch. They did this by instinct. When he was 10 and just learning how to snap a well oiled, hard leather whip into submission, the horses and cattle scattered to the sound of its report. They knew better than to wait for the sting of the well-targeted rawhide strap. The poor cats weren’t so lucky. Thomas Opson didn’t like cats. He practiced his whip snapping technique on their ears and their noses. There was always, at least, one old one-eyed cat living down at the stable on the Opson farm. They learned very quickly not to spend too much time at the main house. As they got older, those wiser porch dogs didn’t seem to care much for the biscuit or hard jerky that their 12-year-old master might hold in his hand. They knew it would always be delivered with a swift kick to their ribs. After that, they couldn’t eat it anyway. This was the way the animals and the dogs acted around young Thomas Opson. Even in his early ages, they knew to stay away from him.
The 14-year-old Opson knew that Cardinals mated for life because his mama told him so. It was his reasoning for killing them. He would take the Springfield Flintlock musket that his daddy brought home from the War of 1812 and kill any buff brown Cardinal that came within his sight. He knew the beautiful buff brown birds were the female of the species so he singled them out, by color, and he took their lives. He hunted for them at the first sight of the majestic Red Bird. It was his way. There was no relevant reason for it other than pure evil. His mama told him that she believed the bright red male Cardinal with the black mask and the black throat to be the most beautiful creature on Earth. She was certain that Cardinals were signals of glad tidings that were to be sent from God. Whenever she saw one of them it reminded her to pause in her daily routine and give thanks to the Lord for the blessings in her life.
Thomas Opson thought this was a waste of time and ridiculed his mama for it behind her back. He believed the plain old brown birds to be inferior. They weren’t as worthy of life as the wicked and strangely magnificent Red Bird, the beautiful bird with the black mask and the black throat. Thomas thought the buff brown impostors of real Cardinals should be thinned out. He thought no one would miss them since they weren’t the pretty ones. Not many could even tell they were Cardinals, he reasoned. He rejoiced in watching the solitary male Red Bird suffering for the loss of his mate. Thomas Opson enjoyed having the power over life and death.
He had to hide his Cardinal killings from his mother, of course, and she had no idea why the beautiful birds stopped visiting and stopped bringing God’s glad tidings to the Opson farm.
His mama knew and understood that Thomas was a demon seed. She knew it wasn’t right for children to act this way. All his life she tried to teach him better, but it didn’t take. She still loved her boy. She was his mama, after all. She had hopes that the young man would grow up to be like the Major. Or, at least, her image of the Major.
Anna Opson helped establish the Church of the Lord’s Faith on Shepherd Hollow Road in 1836. This Church became well known in the community for its sweet spirit and its merciful ways. In her whole, young life Anna Opson never lost faith in her God or in her son. She died in 1845 from the fever and whatever little moral restraint that she was able to keep on her boy died along with her.
Even with his mother’s saintly encouragement to do so, Thomas Randolph Opson never cared for the company of another human being. He preferred to be alone. He grew to be a raging bull, a wild boar, and he ran straight towards his desires. If he saw trappings in front of him that he wished to have, he cared little for the concerns or for the safety of those who stood between him and that infatuation.
He never put himself in harm’s way or in any kind of jeopardy. He saved that for those around him. Self-preservation was his loftiest goal. Pity the unfortunate looked down upon souls who found themselves left in the extended company of his malignant spirit. Their chances for future prosperity, sometimes even their chances for present survival, were evilly reduced with each minute they spent with him.
Master Opson was the seed of Major Beauregard Thomas Opson, a merciless military leader who found uncommon favor serving with Old Hickory himself, Andy Jackson. Major Opson was one of General Jackson’s most trusted Officers and served with him during the Creek Wars and all the way through to the final Battle of New Orleans.
It was Major Beauregard T. Opson that oversaw the Court Martial and hostilities against Jackson’s own men in their mutiny of December 1813. The men, volunteers from Tennessee, felt that their one year enlistment periods should be counted from the time that they left their families and their homes in Tennessee. Old Hickory felt that their enlistment times should only be counted from when they were actually in conflict. By the use of summary Court Martial, imprisonment, and even execution by firing squads, Major B. T. Opson whittled those Tennessee volunteer mutineers out of Andy Jackson’s army. By the time new recruits arrived he had trimmed Old Hickory’s branches down to a scant 103 men.
B. T. Opson was like a mule with blinders on. He didn’t think, he just acted. He was stubborn and mean and you could whip him to death before he would move on a position. For that reason, Old Hickory liked him.
The old Major took care of his seed, Thomas. He was the apple of his eye. He delighted in the fact that the young Opson could handle a Flintlock Musket. He knew what 50 of those trained muskets could do. He had seen it in the Creek Wars. He thought it was funny that the boy could snap the tail of a dog with his whip. The elder Opson used dogs only for hunting, not companionship. He didn’t, however, like Thomas whipping the cows. He said it made their milk sour.
Thomas Opson had no real friends at school.
“Wrestle Opson, Lewis,” King Gatlin promoted one day in the schoolyard. He and the other school children were amazed at the strength, quickness, and the mobility of the new student, Lewis Wayne. Lewis was the son of new settlers into the County. His daddy was a horse trader and a good one, at that, and a blacksmith, too, from Virginia.
“Come on, Thomas. Stand up to him. Show him what Stewart County is made of. Show him your courage,” they all demanded. Unfortunately, 16-year-old Thomas Opson had no real courage. He was never forced to have it. Instead, he showed them his character.
“All right, I’ll wrestle him,” Opson agreed. Up until that day, Thomas Opson won nearly all of his wrestling challenges at school or in Town. He was champion wrestler of the County picnics by the River. Even the boys that could beat him, wouldn’t.
King Gatlin was one of them. He had beaten Thomas Opson once before at wrestling and he learned his lesson. It didn’t cost him anything that day but a month later, when it came time for Opson to take delivery of a new colt from Gatlin, Thomas declined. He had no room for it, he said. Gatlin had to send the colt to Clarksville to sell it and he lost his profit. King Gatlin knew that beating down Thomas Opson in public would cost you later. He also knew that Lewis Wayne was unaware of this truth. That’s why he requested the Opson/Wayne wrestling match. Gatlin wanted to see Opson beaten and he thought Lewis would be too naive not to do it.
Thomas Opson noticed Jewel Crow standing off to the side of the crowd of students. She was paying close attention to the fair-haired and strikingly handsome Lewis Wayne. Opson moved closer to be by her side, so as to speak with her. He became more than a little jealous and was resentful that she continued to show more interest in the strapping new settler than she did in him. Opson spoke to her, but she only casually listened. He told her that he would better the outsider in no time at all and give him a proper Stewart County welcome. He told Jewel that after the match he would like to speak with her again and again, she only remotely heard what he had to say. Jewel Crow was not impressed with Thomas Opson.
When the wrestling match started the two boys circled one another. Opson seemed to be feigning moves or pretending to dive at his opponent. Lewis Wayne watched Opson, studied him, and didn’t think any of his threats were serious. Opson charged Lewis and grabbed him around the waist and in the privates squeezing very hard in an attempt to pick him up and throw him down. Lewis reached up under both of Thomas’ arms with his own and bent them backward, up behind him as he let his weight settle on Opson. He rode him down hard onto the ground. This all happened in the first minute of fighting. It also happened in a way that Opson’s face was the first thing that hit the ground and when he came up his nose was bloodied and broken. The match was over. The students were speechless. They all knew better than to congratulate Lewis Wayne on a smart victory. Rather, they asked Thomas Opson if he were all right and tended to his spilled blood and his fractured pride. King Gatlin grinned with satisfaction.
Lewis Wayne didn’t seem to care that no one embraced his moment. Jewel Crow had his attention and, as far as he was concerned, Thomas Opson was just another pretend to be wrestler . Jewel and Lewis smiled and talked and moved on with their day as if nothing spectacular had happened. Other than their meeting, nothing had.
Thomas Opson felt different. He allowed that it was just dumb luck the way that they both fell on his head. He wanted a rematch and soon, he claimed. Not today, though because his arms still ached from being bent out of shape and his nose hurt, too.
A week later Opson invited Lewis Wayne over to his farm to talk horse trading. Lewis was intrigued that Thomas’ daddy had served with Old Hickory. He jumped at the chance to have the opportunity to speak with the old Major. The Major was impressed with the young lad’s knowledge of military history. He declared that Lewis understood things about the military that even some of his own junior Officers didn’t know. He told Lewis that he thought he would make a fine military officer if he ever chose to be one. He invited him back to his farm at any time.
Late that night after all had gone to bed, Thomas Opson challenged Lewis Wayne to another test of skill.
“We’ll swim the Cumberland River tonight, Lewis. Then, tomorrow we’ll race our best horses and if we are still tied after all of that we’ll wrestle again to determine who is the better man.”
“Why swim the River at night, Thomas? Isn’t that dangerous?” Lewis knew it had to be.
“It’s not dangerous unless you get caught up in flood stumps or log debris. Those debris piles can drag you down that river forever if you get hung up on them, but we’ll look out for that. Let’s go. You scared?” Opson coaxed.
“I’m not scared, but I’ll have to look it over first, Thomas, before I agree to swim it. As far as horse racing tomorrow goes, I won’t be able to do that. I’m going over to Jewel Crow’s house to meet her family.”
Thomas Opson grit his teeth in disgust under his breath.
Steady rains had fallen in Stewart County for two days and Opson knew that debris would be up in the River because of it. He guided Lewis Wayne to a spot on the bank where the boys all understood that it was the safest, shortest way to cross.
“Now, here is how it works, Lewis,” Opson explained. “This River is no big feat to swim, so long as nothing happens. Don’t let yourself get snake bit, watch out for a tree branch or log debris, and swim for your mark. Pick out a landing spot down the river and hit it. We’ll swim over easy to get a feel for the flow of the current, walk back up, and race back across. I hope you brought your fish flippers.”
“Agreed, Thomas,” the young Wayne acknowledged. “This River is a small challenge. We’ll swim across for a trial run and race back.”
Thomas Opson only smiled.
Stacking their clothing in a clearing under a tree, the boys scanned the river’s surface looking for any piles of floating debris that could be riding in the current and racing in the channel towards them. Full grown cattle had been known to get caught up in that jam of logs, driftwood, and riverbank brush and they had been drowned and drug for miles downstream before being let loose. Swimming the Cumberland River at any time was a dangerous prospect. Swimming it at night was a fool’s endeavor. That’s why these were boys and not yet men. They felt ten feet tall all the time.
Once the boys were satisfied that the river was clear they dove in and swam for the channel. Thomas Opson knew the Cumberland. He made damn sure that nothing lurked between him and the other side of it. Quickly, they were away from the bank and into the current. Lewis knifed naturally through Adam’s Ale with a spirited dive and he came up stroking. Opson was already half a body’s length behind before they ever reached the faster current. Once in the channel, Lewis stroked the water with power and pulled himself mightily against the river. He easily overcame it’s flow and aimed for his mark. Opson fell further behind and it was everything he could do just to stay at Wayne’s feet. He had swum this river a dozen times, but he had never before been asked to swim it this fast. He looked up to see if Wayne was paying attention to what was ahead of him in the River and he was. Opson was discouraged to know that Wayne was looking around and this wasn’t his fastest speed, after all, just a warm up, as he said. They were getting closer to the edge of the channel and Lewis would soon be gliding to the river’s bank. In just a few more strokes, Opson would be too far behind to catch up. The end was within sight and within reach. Thomas gave one last push. It took every bit of strength that he had to catch the efficient, fish flipping feet of Lewis Wayne. He grabbed Wayne’s feet to stop him just as they were out of the channel. It was only then that he felt the power of his strokes. Lewis Wayne pulled Thomas Opson through the water with him for several feet with just his arms and Opson felt as though he were still in the channel. They stopped swimming and began treading water.
“What did you do that for, Opson? This is only a trial run. We weren’t swimming our fastest,” Wayne said. He was hardly out of breath.
“I thought I saw a log jam.” Opson was taking a breath halfway through each sentence.
“I thought I saw a flood stump,” take a breath, “Sticking up out of the water,” take another. “They’ll kill you, boy”. Opson took a deep breath and headed for the bank. He was too tired to be treading water all night.
The boys reached the east bank of the Cumberland River and Lewis Wayne sprang easily upon it. Opson followed, struggled up, and sat down on the grass. Laying down or collapsing on it and being out of breath would be too telling of his desperation. “We’ll walk up about a quarter mile and swim back across for real,” Opson offered. “I hope that wasn’t all you’ve got, Wayne.”
“I might surprise you, Thomas,” Lewis Wayne answered.
The only surprise coming that night was from Thomas Opson. As the boys reached the starting point, Opson looked way up the River. He spied a sizable log jam coming down the channel, but it was more than a thousand feet away. If he left now, Lewis Wayne would be across the river and dry by the time that debris pile got here. It was huge, distinct, and easily recognized by a trained eye. It was coming, hard and slow, but it would take a good four to five minutes to get down the river to where they were. Three or four crooked branches could already be seen sticking out of it through the surface of the water and it carried brush debris with it. It was a good one. It was still a very long way away, but Opson knew exactly where it was and exactly how long it would take to get there.
“Look right out there, Wayne,” Thomas coached. “I see nothing right in there coming our way.”
Opson didn’t point a half-mile upstream to the channel-dividing pile of debris that was barreling down the River. It was just outside of the untrained eye’s sight. Lewis Wayne didn’t see it. He didn’t know to look that far back.
“Are you really going to Jewel Crow’s house tomorrow?” Opson distracted Lewis as he hoped for a different answer. “To meet her family? I heard her daddy was a big, strong tree-cutting man. I heard he didn’t like boys coming around to see his daughter. You sure you want to do that?”
“You can rest assured, I am. Jewel said her daddy was a good, hard working man. She said he just acted mean to scare the morons away. Jewel is a smart girl and she comes from a smart family. If she is sweet on me I’d be a fool to look the other way. A man doesn’t want to waste an invitation like that. They don’t come along too often, Thomas.” Lewis Wayne answered, honestly.
“Are you a man, Lewis?” Opson inquired.
“We’ll find that out on the other side of the River, Thomas. You ready?”
Thomas Opson had calculated that the log jam and debris pile was just about within range to sweep any channel swimming boy to a watery grave.
“Let me go up on that rock and look one more time, Wayne, just to be sure that it is clear.” Thomas Opson crawled a few feet up the bank to a vantage point where he could calculate how far away that log jam killer was.
“Just looking, Lewis. A little further. Almost. Hold on. I’m seeing nothing. Are you ready? Now, Wayne!” Opson ran toward the River and tagged Lewis Wayne on the shoulder as he raced by. He dove first and fast into the water.
Lewis Wayne was ready but not for Opson to have a head start. He bolted, dove, and swam and kicked his feet the fastest he had ever kicked in his life to catch up with Opson. He came up out of the water like a dolphin and shot forward like a shark toward the channel. His powerful arm strokes were slicing the water and catapulting him forward. He caught and passed Opson just as they reached the channel. He didn’t notice that Thomas had stopped swimming before going into it. Opson was treading water and backing away from the faster current as Wayne continued to swim like he was five feet behind. Lewis Wayne was neglecting to look at what might lay ahead of him in the River, he was thinking more about winning the race. He made swift headway and Opson thought, for a minute, that this superior swimmer was going to get out of the channel ahead of his death trap. He didn’t make it, though. When Lewis Wayne finally thought to look up the first thing he saw was that mighty debris pile right on top of him. He heard it first. It cut through the River like a loaded, flat bottom boat. The next thing he saw was Thomas Opson one hundred feet back behind him and well out of the channel, watching what was happening. Lewis Wayne made one, last-ditch try to outswim the pile by going straight down river and angling out the side, but it was too late. It was too close to him. A large forward branch snagged his legs and took him, at current speed, sideways down the river. Opson could see Wayne struggling at first against the brush and the branch to break free, but the water against him was too strong. He went under and came back up three times before that log turned and the branch drug him down for the final reckoning. He wanted to scream each of the times he came up, but there was no time for that. Breaths were too precious to be wasted on screams. Lewis Wayne was taking the final breaths of his young life and Thomas Opson was treading water and thinking up a story to tell everyone about why he and Wayne were swimming in the Cumberland River at night.
The story worked. Lewis Wayne’s body was never found and Thomas Opson made sure he was there to console a grieving Jewel Crow. A month later, Lewis Wayne’s mother and father moved their stock and their talents back to Virginia. Their lost son was another victim of the County.
At 17, Thomas Opson began courting Miss Olive Retterree-Smith. She was a Kentucky-bred girl and an accomplished equestrian. Miss Olive was refined and she was a brilliant woman. She finished all of her school books by the age of 12 and began teaching the teacher. After spending four years at boarding school in Lexington, Kentucky Olive was coming to Stewart County to look after her Aunt Naomi Retterree. Miss Retterree was a rich widow woman who was old with the shakes and Olive was tasked by her father to see to her needs. Olive’s parents allowed that when Olive’s mother’s sister passed, Olive would be bestowed with her inheritance. They wished for her to make her Aunt’s last days as peaceful as possible.
Miss Naomi didn’t like or trust Thomas Opson. Something about his eyes, she said. They just didn’t sit right. Naomi thought Miss Olive was a perfectly independent woman with a great chance to make a difference in this world and Miss Naomi didn’t want to see her give that chance up on some scoundrel from Stewart County. She might have the shakes in her old days, but she still remembered how she and her husband had fought like Christians against the lions for everything they owned in this County. She didn’t trust anybody.
Opson was a tall, handsome, dark-haired, slender man with charming eyes. He had money and he had security. That meant a lot in the hard, pioneer life of Stewart County. His land was clean. His trails were easily traveled, his home was inviting, and he kept it that way.
He stayed on his best behavior and swooned Miss Olive for two years. Opson’s daddy died during this time and although Miss Olive was a little leery of some of his moods she thought she saw a little compassion in her beau’s soul at his father’s bereavement. It caused her to hang on a little longer to give him a good chance, but her hope was short lived.
Opson inherited from his father a farm, the stock, and gold and silver, all told, worth about $25,000. It was a tidy sum of money and about equal to what Miss Retterree’s future bequeathal to Miss Olive would be.
But Thomas Opson, being who he was, couldn’t be satisfied with all of that. Even with Miss Olive, in waiting, as his perfect mate for life, he balked and put her off.
Opson took his inheritance and began trading in horseflesh and human flesh and he became very good at buying and selling the both of them. He knew a good horse when he saw it as well as a good slave. He always got what he wanted and he kept the best of both for his own personal pleasure. The horses he kept were high-spirited, the men he bought were strong and healthy, and the women were sometimes mulatto.
Thomas Opson bought an august, noble, distinctively wild black stallion once at the sales. It was a magnificent animal. It was the kind of trophy that Thomas Opson very much liked to own, but it was still, very much, unbroken. It had already thrown him off once and even kicked at him in the stockyards but it was a marvelous specimen and Opson won him against King Gatlin’s bidding for a high dollar price. He had the animal delivered to his home with strict instructions for everyone to stay away from him. He was much too dangerous, Opson warned, for anyone to try to bridle or break without his direction.
When he got home that afternoon he was amazed to see Miss Olive longeing the horse in a large circle. In only a few hours Miss Olive had already begun to gain the horse’s confidence and respect. Opson was decidedly flustered but, at first, he held his tongue.
“We’re sorry, Mr. Thomas,” said Amos Green, as he came running up to Thomas Opson’s horse. Amos was an old stock slave that was originally bought and owned by Mr. Beauregard. “We told her you said for everybody to stay away from that mean horse, just like you said, but she said she could speak to the horse. She went right up to him, Mr. Thomas. It was like nothing you ever seen. We didn’t know what to do. We just backed off. She’s been whispering in that horses ear the likes you ain’t never seen. I ain’t never seen nothing like it.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Thomas,” Amos behaved.
Thomas Opson dismounted his horse and hopped over the fence nearly running to take the longe rope out of Miss Olive’s hands.
“What in the devil’s name are you doing, Olive?” Opson demanded as he jerked the rope from Olive and put himself between the horse and the horsewoman.
The horse immediately bolted and the rope burned out of Opson’s hand. It started bucking and stomping and remembered it’s former attitude. It took four slaves and two healthy nags to settle it back down.
“I was doing fine before you came in here, Thomas. What is wrong with you?” Olive was past understanding.
“This corral is no place for a woman, Olive. You should be back up in that house tending to women’s chores.”
“Should I now?” Miss Olive asked.
Olive walked slowly out of the corral and past the stable up towards the Opson house. She walked as if she had a lot on her mind. She stopped twice along the path and turned back, looking down on the corral. She acted as if she needed to come back and speak again to her gentleman friend but the horse was aggravated and he was occupied. She paused, watching and thinking to herself. Then, she resumed her march up the hill.
A storm was coming in quick from the north and Thomas asked Miss Olive to stay the night. He was sorry for snapping at her, he said. He was just very worried about her. He knew what that horse was capable of and he didn’t even notice that she had taught it to trot. He was very sorry, he almost cried. He was only thinking of her. Like now, he said. He told her that the storm was too severe to be heading down the trail by horse or wagon. He insisted she stay the night. Miss Olive wanted to believe him. She had thought that she saw a glimmer of hope in his soul when his father died. She knew she had left Miss Naomi in good hands with two house women and they would look well after her until she could return. Thomas would send Amos Green out into the storm, he assured, to tell the house ladies that Miss Olive would not be returning until the morrow.
After supper and a taste of liquor, Thomas tried something he had never done before with Miss Olive. He kissed her good night, of course. He had done that many times. But tonight he took it one step further. His amorous advances in the drawing room surprised Miss Olive. She wasn’t raised that way. She almost lost her breath when he attempted to touch her in her secret places.
“Mr. Opson,” she blurted out. “What are you doing? You can’t put your hands on me there! I am a Christian woman. We are not married yet, and I won’t be soiled as a single woman. We have not been properly betrothed. What are you thinking?”
“Miss Olive,” Opson pleaded. We are to be married, aren’t we? It is only a formality now. Will you deny your future husband a simple pleasure?”
“It may be simple to you, Mr. Opson, but it is my dignity and it is all I have. How dare you think that you could trespass upon me like that. And after what I saw of you today, we may not ever get married. Please leave this room, Mr. Opson, or I will be forced to leave this property tonight. The storm has passed and I am not afraid of the dark.” Miss Olive Retterree-Smith was an independent woman.
“I’ll leave.” Opson stomped from the room.
Olive Retterree-Smith readied herself for bed but could not sleep. She tossed in her covers and turned thinking whether, or not, she was making the right decisions about her future. Maybe she should wait a time longer. Maybe her Aunt Naomi was right and Thomas Opson was not the man for her. She decided, after a while, to get back out of her bed and get dressed. She kept thinking of the wild stallion and how tame he was, after all. She wanted to whisper again in his ear tonight. She wanted to calm him like she did earlier. She put on her riding boots and walked back down to the stables.
The horse was tired from the day and barely asleep so she was quiet as she eased up around him. He awoke and remembered her and stayed calm even with her near to him. She whispered in his ear and he slowly unlocked his legs and began to stir about. This was a good horse, she thought to herself. He will make a fine stallion.
She heard some grunting and moaning coming from the other side of the stable and she couldn’t imagine what it was. She left the spirited horse’s side to investigate the sounds that she did not understand.
To her horror, she found her future husband locked in carnal abuse with the young female mulatto house slave that he had only recently purchased. He was grunting like a wild animal as he attacked her from behind and she seemed to moan in both pain and ecstasy, not understanding which her master desired.
“Thomas Opson!” Miss Olive screamed.
“Oh, shat. Shat, shat, shat,” Thomas repeated as Miss Olive retreated back towards the opposite stall.
“What are you doing, Thomas? What are you thinking?” she demanded.
“Olive, Olive wait,” Thomas pleaded as he fell over a bucket. “She means nothing to me. She is just a place for my vitality to play out. I’m a young man, Olive. I tried to approach you earlier, but you scorned me away. You turned me away. I don’t know any different. What was I supposed to do?” Opson begged as he pulled his trousers up.
“What were you supposed to do?” Miss Olive responded. You are supposed to wait. You are not supposed to come down here and have your way with a poor little slave girl. How old is she? 15? How old are you, girl?” Miss Olive was repulsed.
“Almost 15,” the young brown mulatto slave answered.
“I suspected you weren’t the man you let on to be, Thomas Opson. You are so handsome and you act so clean on the outside but on the inside you are rotten to the core. The trails of your farm are well trimmed, but your woods are dirty. Your smile is so beguiling, so deceiving, and a simple girl is easily enticed into your lair. I won’t lower my standards to you, Thomas Opson. I will not live my life with a tyrant such as the likes of you. You are nothing more than a pig.” Olive Retterree-Smith was not realizing that as she so valiantly delivered her truths, like arrows, straight into the heart of Thomas Opson, she had also backed up into the narrow stall with the now agitated stallion. The beast no longer understood that she was still his friend.
Thomas Opson flew into a rage. He charged at Miss Olive, yelling and screaming as he did. She backed even further into the corner of the wild horse’s space and the steed, at once, became one thousand moving pounds of immediate danger. It’s outbursts of fury were amplified and intensified with the howling of Thomas Opson. Opson spit and cussed with a vein-popping eruption that drove the animal further into its panic. He paused to momentarily survey the situation he found himself in and took a deep breath. He seemed to relish the rampage. At that moment, he could have stopped. In that split second, he could have stopped. Instead, he beat on the horse’s head with a whip handle and a bridle bit and waving his arms he spooked the pony up into a frenzy. The fired up stallion began bucking in the stall. It began neighing and whinnying and kicking, breaking, and busting down the boards of its containment.
Miss Olive Retterree-Smith was lost in the bucks and the stomps and the kicks of the wild beast and only after Thomas Opson calmed down and only after the stallion had calmed down did anyone see her lying under the horse with her head stomped in and blood running from her mouth, her eyes, and her ears. She was gone. She had been killed, instantly, and left with a half moon crease the size of a horseshoe in the side of her head.
When he realized that Olive was dead, Thomas Opson immediately pulled his revolver from his holster and fired one shot point blank into the horse’s head, killing it. He was lucky the animal didn’t fall on Miss Olive’s poor body as it slammed to the ground. He called the young mulatto slave over to the stall and asked her to check to be sure that the horse was dead. She did. It was dead and she confirmed it. Opson then put one shot into her heart, ensuring that no witnesses would be left alive to tell the real story.
Slaves came running to the stables after hearing the shots and the lone survivor told the tale. The wild horse became hostile, he reported, just as he said it would. He kicked the lovely Miss Olive in the head, just as he had warned her it might do, and it killed her. In his anger and rage he aimed to shoot the animal dead but it seemed to charge at him and his aim was misdirected and he shot and killed the young slave girl by accident. Finally, he swore, he placed a well-aimed bullet into the animal’s brain.
No one questioned Opson’s account of the accident. The young mulatto slave was buried in the negro cemetery and Miss Olive Retterree-Smith’s body was returned to her home in Kentucky. The horse was fed to the slaves and the pigs.
It was not long after this that Howard Claiborne found favor with Thomas Opson. It was not long after that when Thomas Opson was made Constable of Stewart County.
End of Chapter 6 (Part 1)
The way of peace they know not; and there is no judgment in their goings: they have made them crooked paths: whosoever goeth therein shall not know peace.
In the summer of 1856 the Great Western Furnace in Stewart County Tennessee was a prosperous and successful operation forging high-quality pig iron that was in great demand all the way from St. Louis to New Orleans. Due to Luke Elam’s skillful and well-organized management of the Great Western he and his brother Brandon were becoming two of the most powerful landowners in Stewart County. Nearly every month, it seemed, they were using the money they earned from the Great Western to buy up more bottom land, more timber, and more property than some in the Town cared to see.
This good fortune spread to everyone at the Great Western. From the ownership group, all the way down to the newest hires when the work week ended everyone went home with smiles on their faces and money in their pockets. Black men and their families were seen more often in Town and they had hard cash to spend. At first, many of the local store owners refused to trade with the negroes but they soon realized that Hopkinsville, Kentucky could provide the same products at a better price if the local merchants turned them away. Many black Stewart Countians found it more advantageous and more delightful to make that trip to “Hoptown” once every two or three weeks rather than put up with the bias in Town. It didn’t take long for the shop owners of Dover to begin to feel the emptiness in their pocketbooks and they quickly put the word out that “black” money would be accepted, after all, in their businesses. They did not, however, lower their prices to compete with the Hoptown stores. After all, there wasn’t any other competition, locally, forcing them to do so and that trip to Hoptown and back was several hours long by wagon.
The more the Great Western flexed its muscle, the more the men in power in Dover felt their control slipping away. Unfortunately, these power hungry men of the old way took this as a sign to tighten their grip even harder.
Ignorant power, brute force. It beat down the Indian. It will beat down the slave. This was their counting. They needed to push the men harder, they calculated, as that was their shortcoming. Making the slaves smarter and concurrently more productive by pushing them harder was the way, they figured, that the Great Western could be bettered.
Many were the days of work that Luke and Hilton guided their mule teams and wagon loads of laborers through the predawn hours of Dover only to become eyewitnesses to freshly whipped men hanging in locked stocks on the Town Square. It was a savage and barbaric way to increase pig iron production and a harsh and crude approach to making examples of runaway slaves. It was a poorly bred fool’s means to a bloody end and it was applied regularly with a jaundiced and calloused eye. A decent, working man’s wage to those beaten down men was inconsequential and the least of their worries. They were trained to believe that not being whipped was far better than receiving a payday of any kind and running away from your master could bring you an unspeakable torture, even death, at the hands of an earthbound devil.
These men and boys were our neighbors, our friends. It was hard to believe that we all lived in the same world and much less, the same Town. On one especially sad morning as the wagons passed through Dover, Constable Thomas Opson was still whipping a poor boy who had become unconscious as he was chained to the stock. Opson, drunk with whiskey and unbridled power, continued to lash at the young man. Luke Elam could stand it no more. He jumped from his wagon and grabbed Opson’s arm before he was able to crack another snap of his whip on the helpless boy.
“You’re killing him, Opson!” He yelled as he held back his arm. “This is enough! He is half dead and dying. Have you no mercy?”
Opson was surprised Luke had come upon him so quick. He jerked his arm away and laughed. “Mercy? These wild dogs deserve no mercy, Elam. He’s an escaped slave that was caught.” He pointed his bloody whip in Luke’s face. “He gets 100 lashes at the post on the Committee’s order and if you know what is good for you, Elam, you will not obstruct me again or I will have you in that stock. I’ll enjoy striping your backside.” Several whiskey drinking Committee of Safety (COS) riders gathered around Thomas Opson and provided him with all the courage he needed to make these threats.
Hilton had moved up behind Luke and pulled him away. “Come on, Mr. Luke. You can’t help that boy today. He is in God’s hands now. Let’s move on through this town with mean eyes.”
“Listen to your boy, Elam,” Opson advised. “Or that Furnace of yours will be without its Founder for awhile.” He snapped his whip at Luke’s feet, but Luke Elam did not flinch.
Opson blinked in disbelief and furled his brows in wonder as he struggled to understand just why his power or how his threats put no fear into the elder Elam.
Luke and Hilton moved back toward their mule teams.
The men in the wagons were silent and many prayed in whispers to God as the cracking whip resumed and made fresh cuts into the listless body of the young negro trapped in the devil’s stocks. Opson seemed to enjoy the spectacle he made by whipping the boy. Every time he wound his arm back and flung the well-aimed tip of the weapon toward his victim he screamed, “Heeeyaaaaa!”
The men of the Great Western later learned that the boy was, in fact, dead. It was a town gone mad. Life meant nothing to those in power. They covered up their sins as if nothing had ever happened. They continued on their paths as if they would never be judged for their dastardly deeds. There was no earthly power to stand against them. They controlled the law, they controlled the Court, and they controlled the night and the day. Who would question Howard Claiborne and his “family”? They were located in every corner of the County and beholding only to him. Who was strong enough to come against his law?
Yet, amongst it all the men at the Great Western had a great hope. They had a working hope that was covered with the promise of freedom. The men of every other Furnace in the County and in other Counties like Dickson, to the south of Dover, could only muster a faint, silent hope. Even so, sadly, theirs was a hope that was drenched in misery and despair. Outside of Town and far away from the Committee of Safety’s sight, Luke Elam stopped the wagons and the men prayed together, out loud, for the poor boy’s soul.
With every passing month of it’s existence, the ironmasters from the other Furnaces felt more and more greed, jealousy, and animosity toward the Great Western for its profitable and sustained growth. The high quality and the huge quantity of pig iron that was coming from the “Elam and Jacobs” Furnace could be matched nowhere else in the County or, for that matter, the Country. Month after month, season after season, it outsold all of it’s competitors at the wharf.
“Top dollar, Great Western!” That was the word that always came back from the River Boat Landing.
Time, and time again, the Iron Masters tried to lure Mr. Luke away from the Great Western. They tried to buy him out. They wanted to hire him for themselves, but he would never accept their offers and he would never sell himself out to their lower standards. They didn’t really want Mr. Luke to improve their iron production and, after all, they didn’t really want him to resurrect their slaves, either. They just wanted to be able to put their finger on him. They only needed to slow the Great Western down. Raising their own standards was never in the equation. But Luke Elam was smarter than that.
These iron masters despised the fact that their free workers, white and black, would often take lesser jobs as pick and ax men just to have the opportunity to work the Great Western. These confederate pig iron workers, with their learned experience, made the Great Western an even stronger organization. While the other Furnaces still made money, as pig iron was a very lucrative business, their owners felt that it wasn’t enough. They wanted the success that Luke Elam had. They wanted to be number one again like they were when there was no Great Western. Their problem was that they just weren’t willing to show the kindness and the generosity needed to get that status back. It wasn’t their way. Their way was the old way, the Cross Elam way of ignorant power and brute force. Because of this they would never be able to reach the pinnacle of success that the Great Western enjoyed. They never really had it, to begin with. Try as they all did to hold on to their power, they knew that their authority was slipping further and further away from them. With each and every day, the Great Western forged ahead. The powers that shouldn’t be increased their measures to regain control at any cost.
All of the money that the men of color earned at the Great Western, the County tried to take it away. The County Court, upon the instruction of Dover Furnace Iron Master Howard Claiborne, passed laws that required all freedmen to bond themselves. This bond was, in effect, a tax or a license that the County required of them to be “free”. The bond was so high, sometimes as much as a hundred dollars, that the men felt as though they would never be able to earn their freedoms.
Who would be the next in line to come and say, “I own a piece of you now.”
Many men, begrudgingly, did suffer to pay the blood money and bonded themselves to become free so they could have the right to stay and live in Stewart County. However, even this wasn’t pleasing to the Court. The Court obtusely reckoned that if the former slaves, who sought to be free, paid the County it’s required bond money they would be less likely to leave this, their little island of despair. Their plan was to ensure that the money the former slaves continued to earn as free men would be kept between the rivers and inside their little hell hole. But not enough freedmen, to the County’s liking, made a bond with the Court. Once the men earned their freedom, more and more of them left Stewart County forever, never looking back. The Court worried that other slaves were escaping and leaving with them. This concern was not unfounded. There were hundreds, if not thousands of slaves working the iron furnaces and the sacred tobacco farms of Stewart County in 1856. People soon found, through the example of the Great Western, that there was another way, a better way of life. At the first opportunity, many of them packed up their belongings, sometimes in a single bag, and under the cover of night and immediate threat of a cruel and agonizing death they moved, quickly North, to the safety of Kentucky.
As a result of this ever-increasing migration, the Court attempted to make individual owners accountable for their slaves if they escaped. They passed laws requiring that a responsible white man, a sponsor, must co-sign any Freedman’s Bond. If that freedman left and took others with him the cosigners were held liable for the losses. A freedman that left and took his wife and two children with him could cost the cosigner upwards of two thousand dollars! This was payable to the County, of course, as a compensation to the other iron furnaces for lost production. Cosigners became very scarce. In a way, many freedmen felt that their hard earned money was no good, that they weren’t really free if they had to have a white man sign on with them for their bond. Other laws passed by the County Court ordered that freedmen could own no horses, no livestock, and no guns. This further infuriated them. They had worked very hard to earn their freedom. They bought land and invested in Stewart County hoping to stay here and now they were told that they could not own the animals required to manage their property. The County Court made it intolerable for them to stay and intolerable for them to leave.
Luke and Brandon Elam signed all of their freed men’s bonds but only a handful of other white men in the county would sign for their men. Those men who could not secure a bond, after they had worked so hard for and earned the money to buy back their freedom, were understandably agitated. The only thing left for them to do was to move away from Stewart County to a place where a bond was not required of them to live free. The closest place to begin a journey like that started just twelve miles away, in Kentucky.
If they bought their freedom they were free to move, the Court allowed, but if they stayed in Stewart County it would cost them bond money. Even if they had bond money they would have to find a co-signer to sponsor them. Even if they had a cosigner, they could not own livestock. On top of all this they were told that they could not move their families with them to other parts of the County. Their families were still slaves and were made to stay in the slave quarters of their masters. It made no difference to the County that these were the wives and the children of free men. The men’s families weren’t recognized as free. Their freedom cost money, too, the Court ruled. The Court allowed that only the free men who had paid for their singular freedom could move about the County untethered. Their children and their wives could not move with them as the Court ruled they were not free. It was easy to see why many of the men chose to leave by any means possible as soon as they could and even in the dead of the night. This is where the slaves began disappearing. This is where the Committee of Safety riders were employed to hunt them down and bring them back to the stocks of Dover.
As the summer of 1856 turned to fall tension filled the air in Stewart County. In September, the COS began stopping and holding the Great Western wagon train workers in Town. They said they needed to check each wagon for runaways. This usually delayed the Great Western’s production by about an hour for that day. In October, they began pulling accused runaways from the wagons and either Mr. Luke or the Iron Master had to come back to Dover later in the day to retrieve him. The slave was never a runaway and was always beaten before he was returned. This happened three times in November 1856. It was a fuse that was burning red hot. We saw it all lighting off right in front of us, but we couldn’t put it out. We had to live through it. We had to watch it burn.
Hilton bought his freedom sooner than he expected and was a bonded free man so we were allowed to move freely anywhere we desired as the Elam brothers encouraged it. We bought a farm as far up into Tennessee as we could to be away from the riders of Dover’s Committee of Safety. We lived only a couple of miles North of the Great Western and Hilton was able to come home every night. The Elams would never report us, Hilton’s family, as missing or runaway slaves so we were always able and never a danger to travel together. We chose to trade in Kentucky. People were nicer and it was a lot safer up there. They welcomed our money and us, equally. Samuel was 9 years old and Hilmon was just beginning to walk. We could have moved to Kentucky. It was only about seven miles away, but we didn’t. The road North was not as well traveled as others, but there were farms that dotted the landscape all along the way and we knew everyone on the path.
Besides, Hilton loved the Great Western. He made thirty dollars a month there and we had never seen or imagined that kind of money before. He used to say that somebody would have to beat him away from his Furnace with a stick before he would ever leave her. She was his second love and I accepted that.
We lived far away from Dover now. We no longer witnessed, first hand, the atrocities that were being committed against the runaways. Even more horrible stories were now told that women, and children alike, were being chained to the stocks and whipped. Dogs were set loose on runaways and they were viciously attacked to bring them down. Women were being raped by men on the sides of the road in the broad light of day. The Committee of Safety riders made no attempt to put a stop to these crimes. Sometimes, it was told, they were the culprits of the evil doings. We received these reports from the workers that continued to ride the ferry across the Cumberland and pass through the County Seat on the way to the Great Western. It was getting worse all the time. No one could blame anyone for trying to escape. There was no justice and there was no peace.
These bad times all started, I guess, with the success of the Great Western. Men were making such good money. By the fall of 1856 the men had two full years of work behind them and the sound money that came from it was burning a hole in their pockets. People were buying their freedom left and right and after that, they bought land and farms. Many men left Stewart County, but many stayed to continue to work and earn a solid living. Those that left usually left because they had families and they were able to get the means together to get their families away from here, all together. Those that stayed were usually single men who enjoyed the freedom of hard work and good money. Either way, all of these people offered hope to a thousand other slaves in the County.
There were nearly twenty furnaces in Stewart County in 1856 but only one Great Western. In a place where imaginary dreams were the only hope a person might have, whatever happened at the Great Western was retold a hundred times over and built upon with every telling. It was told that those black men who worked the Great Western were now free men living in the North of Stewart County and they owned their own land. If they owned five acres it was told that they owned a whole hunting valley or a whole fishing stream. If the freemen chose to leave Stewart County it was told that if they hadn’t loaded up two wagons full, with their belongings, then they weren’t ready, just yet, to leave. Money flowed like honey to the bees to anyone associated with the Great Western.
Stories of superior working conditions, even at a hot Iron Furnace, continued to creep back from the Great Western to all of those living in the dismal, dirt floor slave quarters of their masters. Throughout the County, “North, through Kentucky”, became a rallying cry for all the slaves. Anything that could be or would be said of the life up north was always better than the reality they understood in Stewart County. It was the dream of freedom that drove those men and women. It was the dream that they could be better than they were, that they could do better for themselves and for their families if they were only given the chance. With the Great Western, they had seen it. They knew it was real. Real freedom waited in Kentucky for all those brave enough to risk it. It may cost them their lives, but they reasoned death would be easier for them than the life they now lived. Even those men with little or no money, even those men with no shoes risked escaping. The Great Western was the way.
This is where Hilton got into trouble. He had no reason to leave Stewart County. He had his family with him, he owned a working farm with livestock that the Elams claimed they owned, and he made good money at the Great Western. But even though he had no reason to leave he sure did his best to help others get away. It became well known in other Furnaces that if you were trying to escape and you could make your way to Hilton Jacobs, the Keeper at the Great Western, you could make your way to freedom. We were already in the northern part of the County, almost to Kentucky, and Hilton knew the ways of those Committee of Safety Riders. He could point an accompanied man down ten different trails, all in the right direction, towards the safety of the North. There was a network of farms spread out up there like a patchwork quilt and Hilton knew, as did I, where the friendly farms were and where the farms were that should be passed by. I supported Hilton in helping these poor and desperate people. I always aided these runners, who’s only crime was a search for freedom, with a food basket and a bundle of clothes. Many was the night that a quiet tap was heard on our door from an exhausted man who had just swum across the Cumberland River or a frightened and scared young couple that had just escaped the sharp teeth of the hounds. They were all making their way, blindly, towards an unknown freedom. Most of the time all of the property that these people owned was on their backs. We had a plan for them. It was all laid out very carefully. We would ease them, feed them, and let them rest as we watched the roads and listened to the wind for the right time to go. Mose’s daddy would take them on foot safely up into Kentucky and make the first pass with them. Then, they would be escorted further under that same network of cover into Illinois and Ohio. They were passed off to the next guide all along the way until they felt safe. Until they felt safe, that was their only condition for settling.
After a while, we began receiving letters from way up North. Letters would come back from Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, and from just about everywhere that you could imagine. Even from as far away as New York, the letters came back to us. Most times, when Mose’s daddy handed a runaway off to the next guide in the line that guide had a return letter for him to bring back to us. Almost every one of them had two or three dollars inside thanking us for the clothes or the food that we shared with them. They were all signed, Cousin Beulah or Cousin Big Billy, or some such name so as not to arouse too much suspicion if the letters happened to be intercepted or stolen by some scallywag. We passed the money to the next passenger on our train.
These runaways became a serious epidemic among the other ironmasters in the County. Each master was losing their slaves at the rate of at least one a week. This was 15-20 slaves, all told, escaping north every week to Kentucky. The opposing iron masters grew tired of losing. They had no end game for losing and the growing loss of their workers through escalating escapes lowered their production even more. The iron masters put more and more pressure on the Court to do something to stop this mass exodus. The County had a duty, they said, to protect their holdings. This was, after all, their owned property that was walking away. If the County Court couldn’t protect their interests they would take their bankrolls further south, they said, to Dickson County and beyond.
The Elam brothers knew what was happening but never let on and they never questioned an unfamiliar face that may have been seen hiding too far north in the County. The other furnace masters and the Committee of Safety riders suspected that the Elam boys were helping slaves to escape, but they could never prove it. They hated them for this and they began to tighten the noose around the Great Western’s neck.
Luke and Brandon Elam felt the pressure coming. They called for a special meeting of all the workers at the Great Western and the word was that it was not going to be good. Since the Committee of Safety had ratcheted up their enforcement of the, “No more than three slaves meeting together at any one time law”, the brothers called for the assembly to be held on the grounds of the Great Western. After all that was happening, it was the only good and safe place left for them to meet. So, under the disguise of work, a late harvest celebration, and the coming of Christmas, the final meeting of the workers of the Great Western Furnace in Stewart County, Tennessee was planned for November 28th, 1856.
End of Chapter 5
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