Chapter 8

The Town With Mean Eyes, Part 3

John 1:5

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.

Micah 2:1

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.

LUKE 8:17

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.