In Too Deep
Friday, January 27, 2012
Tidewater Region of Virginia, 1830
Her defiant dignity stood out even in this horrible circumstance. She was beautiful, standing tall, majestically arrogant in spite of such indecent exposure. It was obvious she wasn’t like the others in the line. He could see it, but more than that, he sensed it. Each of the women’s shoulders slumped, their heads hung low, humiliation and defeat apparent over every inch of them.
Some tried to cover their nakedness with their chained hands to no avail. No one cared about their shame. They were not afforded the privilege of pride or decency. To most of the spectators, they were not human but stock animals on parade for the highest bidder; assembled for inspection to be purchased for whatever the buyer desired.
Dear Lord, when will this end? How long must my people suffer this shame and bondage? He prayed silently, holding his anger in check, pushing down the urge to lash out. He noticed her head was held high and her stance impudent even in shackles.
No one at the auction took pity on these women being sold like prime cattle . . . no one but him and God. His heart always ached at the sight of their uncovered bodies shiny with oil, pulled with chains and fettered in leg irons linking them all together.Waiting to hear from God, Bo stood in the back as he always did, out of sight of the others eager to make their purchases.
Some of the patrons poked and prodded the merchandise, ignoring their cries of discomfort and whimpers of shame and fear. One woman made no sound. Her eyes were fixed in a hostile stare at nothing in particular, her full lips tight.
Montgomery Dale, a wealthy farmer from outside Richmond, wanted to see her teeth. “Open up!” he commanded. After all, good skin, teeth, and a pink tongue meant you’d be getting a healthy slave. She didn’t open her mouth.
“You heard me, you stupid wench, open up!” Her jaw visibly tightened.
Harvey Price moved over to her and struck her hard enough to rock her back. “You heard him! Open your mouth!” He took his hands and tried to pry her lips and jaw apart. She still resisted. He hit her a second time, trying again to open her jaws when, in an instant, she bit down on his fingers. He yelled and snatched his hands away.
“You bit me!” His fist slammed into her head. She did not open her mouth but her eyes shut tight from the blow. She bent over, groaning, and buckled to her knees.
“Never mind, I don’t want a slave I have to beat to death to make mind. Waste of good money.” Montgomery waved his hand as he walked away.
“I warned you, you troublesome . . .” Harvey punched her in the face once more. She grunted from the pain and crumbled to the wooden platform. “Joe, get over here and loose her! Take her to the tobacco barn! I’m gonna teach this wench a lesson she’ll never forget when she comes to. She won’t bite nobody else when I’m done with her.”
A thin, tall black man came from the rear of the stage holding a giant key. “Shame ya has ta whoop her, Mistah Harvey, she sho a good lookin’ healthy one. Pretty as kin be an’ got a good strong body. Shame ta scar up such a fine lookin’ one. Dat’ll bring down her worth, won’ it?”
“Don’t ask me no stupid questions, boy! Do as I say before I whip your black hide too!”
“Yessah, Massah Harvey, anythin’ ya says, Massah Harvey.”
Harvey grumbled, “Ain’t nobody gonna buy her actin’ like a stubborn mule. A good lashin’s what she needs to teach her not to bite white folks.”
Bo felt the strong stirring of his spirit. It was a forceful urging and he knew why. He made his way swiftly toward the front. Marshall Craig was watching him, his dislike for Bo apparent. Their farms were adjacent. Bo knew the man hated him, hated his being a free Negro and property owner, but there was nothingMarshall could do about it.Afree black man productively working the land was an insult to a struggling white farmer. Marshall Craig opposed Mister Maitland and everything the man and his family represented. He despised all God-fearing men like Maitland, especially those who spoke out against slavery.
Ten years ago Jordan Maitland died, leaving instructions for his thirty-five slaves to be freed and a parcel of land given to Bo Peace. Bo continually produced abundant crops and maintained healthy farm stock on the flourishing farm he owned. He lived on this land with other freed slaves, working and living in agrarian prosperity. It was an industrious community of free blacks. Craig despised the idea of blacks running a farm on their own. He particularly disliked Bo, the man he considered the leader of the out-of-place coloreds.
Bo stepped up to Harvey. “I’ll buy her, Mister Price, sir,” he said quietly.
Harvey snapped his head around and looked at Bo. He knew this educated freed slave all too well. He talked too proper and was too blasted proud. Harvey didn’t like Bo Peace but he didn’t care about likes or dislikes, politics, humanity, or religion. All he was concerned with was making a profit. To him this black man’s money was as good as anybody’s. “You sure you want this one?” he asked.
“Yes sir, that one.”
Harvey glanced at Joe then back at Bo. “Now I know she’s mighty good to look at, boy, but you sure you want this here hard-to-tame wench?”
“Yes sir; how much you asking for her?”
“Let me see now . . . Seein’ she’s a strong healthy one with a breedin’ history . . .” He rubbed his chin, which showed a week’s worth of stubble, and his grin sported a missing front tooth. “I’ll sell her to you for nine hundred fifty dollars.” His grin widened. “She’s awful fetchin’, you know.”
“Nine hundred fifty?” Bo knew a white man would pay less for a disobedient slave. That amount would take almost all he had to spend. He’d been hoping to purchase two slaves.
“That’s my price. She’s young and look at those hips . . . wide . . . made to have a passel of picaninnies. Valuable stock, she is and has a goodly caboose too, probably keep you warm and satisfied many a cold winter night to come. Shoot, appealin’ as she is, I was tempted to try her out myself.” Harvey watched closely for Bo’s reaction.
Bo kept his face emotionless. “Nine hundred fifty then is agreed.”
Harvey slapped his back. “Good enough, glad to get this troublesome one off my hands. Joe, help get this ornery critter outta here and onto his wagon.”
Bo handed Joe the two blankets he was carrying. Joe covered the woman even before unlocking her shackles. Bo observed all the women, sorry he couldn’t buy every one of them. He dropped his head, not wanting his eyes to meet their pleading faces.
“Now look here, boy, you already see she’s hardheaded, so no bringin’ her back complainin’.” Harvey snorted as he lit his pipe. “It’s a deal that won’t be bartered away for no reason, ya hear?”
Aaron Philpot stepped up. “That’s too much money, Bo. He’s cheating you.”
Harvey puffed smoke in Philpot’s face and growled. “Shut up and mind your own business.”
“Nine hundred fifty dollars in these parts for a hard-totame slave is robbery and you know it,” Philpot insisted.
“Listen up you treacherous blabbermouth good doer, it’s what I’m chargin’ and what he’s payin’. So git outta here causin’ trouble!”
“I’m satisfied, Mister Philpot. It’s as it should be.” Bo took hold of part of the limp, wrapped body Joe was carrying down the steps.
Posted by Bonnie S. Calhoun at 12:04 AM
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Dwadlo, North Dakota, 1892
The winter of ’92 is gonna go down as one of the worst Dwadlo’s ever seen,” Hal Murphy grumbled as he dumped the sack of flour he got for his wife on the store counter. “Mark my words.” He turned toward Mae Wilkey, the petite postmistress, who was stuffing mail in wooden slots.
“Spring can’t come soon enough for me.” She stepped back, straightening the row of letters and flyers. She didn’t have to record Hal’s prediction; it was the same every year. “I’d rather plant flowers than shovel snow any day of the week.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Hal nodded to the store owner, Dale Smith, who stood five foot seven inches with a rounded belly and salt-and-pepper hair swept to a wide front bang. “Add a couple of those dill pickles, will you?” Hal watched as Dale went over to the barrel and fished around inside, coming up with two fat pickles.
“That’ll fix me up.” Hal turned his attention back to the mail cage, his eyes fixed on the lovely sight. “Can’t understand why you’re still single, Mae. You’re as pretty as a raindrop on a lily pad.” He sniffed the air. “And you smell as good.”
Smiling, Mae moved from the letter boxes to the cash box. Icy weather may have delayed the train this morning, but she still had to count money and record the day’s inventory. “Now, Hal, you know I’d marry you in a wink if you weren’t already taken.” Hal and Clara had been married forty-two years, but Mae’s usual comeback never failed to put a sparkle in the farmer’s eye. Truth be, she put a smile on every man’s face, but she wasn’t often aware of the flattering looks she received. Her heart belonged to Jake Mallory, Dwadlo’s up-and-coming attorney.
Hal nodded. “I know. All the good ones are taken, aren’t they?”
She nodded. “Every single one. Especially in Dwadlo.”
The little prairie town was formed when the Chicago & North Western Railroad came through five years ago. Where abundant grass, wild flowers, and waterfalls had once flourished, hundreds of miles of steel rail crisscrossed the land, making way for big, black steam engines that hauled folks and supplies. Before the railroad came through, only three homesteads had dotted the rugged Dakota Territory: Mae’s family’s, Hal and Clara’s, and Pauline Wilson’s.
But in ’87 life changed, and formerly platted sites became bustling towns. Pine Grove and Branch Springs followed, and Dwadlo suddenly thrived with immigrants, opportunists, and adventure-seeking folks staking claims out West. A new world opened when the Dakota Boom started.
Hal’s gaze focused on Mae’s left hand. “Jake still hasn’t popped the question?”
Mae sighed. Hal was a pleasant sort, but she really wished the townspeople would occupy their thoughts with something other than her and Jake’s pending engagement. True, they had been courting for six years and Jake still hadn’t proposed, but she was confident he would. He’d said so, and he was a man of his word—though every holiday, when a ring would have been an appropriate gift, that special token of his intentions failed to materialize. Mae had more lockets than any one woman could wear, but Jake apparently thought that she could always use another one. What she could really use was his hand in marriage. The bloom was swiftly fading from her youth, and it would be nice if her younger brother, Jeremy, had a man’s presence in his life.
“Be patient, Hal. He’s busy trying to establish a business.”
“Good lands. How long does it take a man to open a law office?”
“Apparently six years and counting.” She didn’t like the uncertainty but she understood it, even if the town’s population didn’t. She had a good life, what with work, church, and the occasional social. Jake accompanied her to all public events, came over two or three times a week, and never failed to extend a hand when she needed something. It was almost as though they were already married.
“The man’s a fool,” Hal declared. “He’d better slap a ring on that finger before someone else comes along and does it for him.”
“Not likely in Dwadlo,” Mae mused. The town itself was made up of less than a hundred residents, but other folks lived in the surrounding areas and did their banking and shopping here. Main Street consisted of the General Store, Smith’s Grain and Feed, the livery, the mortuary, the town hall and jail (which was almost always empty), Doc Swede’s office, Rosie’s Café, and an empty building that had once housed the saloon. Mae hadn’t spotted a sign on any business yet advertising “Husbands,” but she was certain her patience would eventually win out.
With a final smile Hal moved off to pay for his goods. Mae hummed a little as she put the money box in the safe. Looking out the window, she noticed a stiff November wind snapping the red canvas awning that sheltered the store’s porch. Across the square, a large gazebo absorbed the battering wind. The usually active gathering place was now empty under a gray sky. On summer nights music played, and the smell of popcorn and roasted peanuts filled the air. Today the structure looked as though it were bracing for another winter storm. Sighing, Mae realized she already longed for green grass, blooming flowers, and warm breezes.
After Hal left Mae finished up the last of the chores and then reached for her warm wool cape. She usually enjoyed the short walk home from work, but today she was tired—and her feet hurt because of the new boots she’d purchased from the Montgomery Ward catalog. On the page they had looked comfortable with their high tops and polished leather, but on her feet they felt like a vise.
Slipping the cape’s hood over her hair, she said goodbye to Dale and then paused when her hand touched the doorknob. “Oh, dear. I really do need to check on Pauline again.”
“How’s she doing?” The store owner paused and leaned on his broom. “I noticed she hasn’t been in church recently.”
Dale always reminded Mae of an owl perching on a tree limb, his big, dark blue eyes swiveling here and there. He might not talk a body’s leg off, but he kept up on town issues. She admired the quiet little man for what he did for the community and respected the way he preached to the congregation on Sundays.
How was Pauline doing? Mae worried the question over in her mind. Pauline lived alone, and she shouldn’t. The elderly woman was Mae’s neighbor, and she checked on her daily, but Pauline was steadily losing ground.
“She’s getting more and more fragile, I’m afraid. Dale, have you ever heard Pauline speak of kin?”
The small man didn’t take even a moment to ponder the question. “Never heard her mention a single word about family of any kind.”
“Hmm…me neither. But surely she must have some.” Someone who should be here, in Dwadlo, looking after the frail soul. Mae didn’t resent the extra work, but the post office and her brother kept her busy, and she really didn’t have the right to make important decisions regarding the elderly woman’s rapidly failing health.
Striding back to the bread rack, she picked up a fresh loaf. Dale had private rooms at the back of the store where he made his home, and he was often up before dawn baking bread, pies, and cakes for the community. Most folks in town baked their own goods, but there were a few, widowers and such, who depended on Dale’s culinary skills. By this hour of the day the goods were usually gone, but a few remained. Placing a cherry pie in her basket as well, she called, “Add these things to my account, please, Dale. And pray for Pauline too.”
Nodding, he continued sweeping, methodically running the stiff broomcorn bristles across the warped wood floor.
The numbing wind hit Mae full force when she stepped off the porch. Her hood flew off her head and an icy gust of air snatched away her breath. Putting down her basket, she retied the hood before setting off for the brief walk home. Dwadlo was laid out in a rather strange pattern, a point everyone agreed on. Businesses and homes were built close together, partly as shelter from the howling prairie winds and partly because there wasn’t much forethought given to town planning. Residents’ homes sat not a hundred feet from the store. The whole community encompassed less than five acres.
Halfway to her house, snowflakes began swirling in the air. Huddling deeper into her wrap, Mae concentrated on the path as the flakes grew bigger.
She quickly covered the short distance to Pauline’s. The dwelling was little more than a front room, tiny kitchen, and bedroom, but she was a small woman. Pauline pinned her yellow-white hair in a tight knot at the base of her skull, and she didn’t have a tooth in her head. She chewed snuff, which she freely admitted was an awful habit, but Mae had never heard her speak of giving it up.
Her faded blue eyes were as round as buttons, and no matter what kind of day she was having, it was always a new one to her, filled with wonders. Her mind wasn’t what it used to be. She had good and bad days, but mostly days when her moods changed as swift as summer lightning. She could be talking about tomatoes in the garden patch when suddenly she would be discussing how to spin wool.
Mae noted a soft wisp of smoke curling up from the chimney and smiled. Pauline had remembered to feed the fire this afternoon, so this was a good day.
Unlatching the gate, she followed the path to the front porch. In summertime the white railings hung heavy with red roses, and the scent of honeysuckle filled the air. This afternoon the wind howled across the barren flower beds Pauline carefully nurtured during warmer weather. Often she planted okra where petunias should be, but she enjoyed puttering in the soil and the earth loved her. She brought fresh tomatoes, corn, and beans to the store during spring and summer, and pumpkins and squash lined the railings in the fall.
In earlier days Pauline’s quilts were known throughout the area. She and her quilting group had made quite a name for themselves when Dwadlo first became a town. Four women excelled in the craft. One had lived in Pine Grove, and two others came from as far away as Branch Springs once a month to break bread together and stitch quilts. But one by one the women had died off, leaving Pauline to sew alone in her narrowing world.
Stomping her boots on the porch, Mae said under her breath, “I don’t mind winter, Lord, but could we perhaps have a little less of it?” The only answer was the wind whipping her garments. Tapping lightly on the door, she called, “Pauline?”
Mae stepped back and waited to hear the shuffle of feet. Pauline used to answer the door in less than twenty seconds. It took longer now. Mae made a fist with her gloved hand and banged a little harder. The wind howled around the cottage eaves. She closed her eyes and prayed that Jeremy had remembered to stack sufficient firewood beside the kitchen door. The boy was generally responsible, and she thanked God every day that she had him to lean on. He had been injured by forceps during birth, which left him with special needs. He was a very happy fourteen-year-old with the reasoning power of a child of nine.
A full minute passed. Mae frowned and tried the doorknob. Pauline couldn’t hear herself yell in a churn, but she might also be asleep. The door opened easily, and Mae peeked inside the small living quarters. She saw that a fire burned low in the woodstove, and Pauline’s rocking chair sat empty.
Stepping inside, she closed the door and called again. “Pauline? It’s Mae!”
The ticking of the mantle clock was the only sound that met her ears.
“Pauline?” She lowered her hood and walked through the living room. She paused in the kitchen doorway.
Posted by Bonnie S. Calhoun at 11:17 PM
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
MT. JEFFERSON, VIRGINIA 1959
Lt. Buddy Briggs was lying in bed next to his wife. On the nightstand, the clock radio Amanda had given him for Christmas two years ago said it was 5:16 a.m. It kept pretty good time for a dime-store special. In exactly fourteen minutes the alarm would go off under the guise of a radio show, and Crazy Charlie’s Coffee Pot would fill the room with a weather report, baseball scores, Khrushchev, and Connie Francis. Should he wait for the alarm and hope for a few more minutes of sleep, or just get up and get it over with?
“Are you awake?”
“I am now,” Amanda said with a sleepy smile in her voice.
“Sorry. But I was just lying here thinking about Shirley Ann and the baby. Are you going to call her this morning or wait to hear from her?”
“If we don’t hear something by eight, I’ll call her. But don’t worry now. She’s in good hands.”
“I know that. But those pains she was having last night … If the baby comes soon, how early would it be?” “The baby is due July twentieth. And today is what?”
“I know that, silly.” She kicked him playfully under the sheets. “Wednesday, June seventeenth.”
“So that would mean it’s four more weeks and a few days to full term. She’ll be okay. They’ll be okay.”
“I still find it hard to believe that our sixteen-year-old daughter …”
“Seventeen!” she corrected him.
“Okay, seventeen-year-old daughter is about to be somebody’s mother.”
“And you, old man, are about to be somebody’s grandpa.”
“Don’t be so smug because you know that makes you …”
“Yeah, what does that make me?”
“That makes you the prettiest grandmother I’ve woken up next to … in weeks.”
“Okay, big boy, I can kick harder than that last one.”
“What? I said you were the prettiest—”
The ring of the phone stopped him in midsentence. Nothing is louder or more unsettling than a screaming telephone after bedtime or before breakfast. But as a police officer with the Mt. Jefferson force, he had learned to be a little less alarmed each time it rang. It was rarely good news, but it was almost always business. However, this morning—Shirley Ann weighed heavily on his mind—it could be personal. He reached for the receiver and picked it up in the middle of the second ring.
The pause after the initial hello was so long that Amanda sat up in bed, wide awake, so she could see the expression on his face. There was none. He was listening intently. It scared her that he wasn’t writing anything on the pad that always lay on the nightstand next to a pencil ready for middle-of-the-night note taking. Names and addresses were hurriedly scratched down before he would leap out of bed and jump into clothes that he invariably put out the night before for just such emergencies.
Amanda put her hand on his arm and quietly said, “What is it?” but he only shook his head slightly and kept listening. He finally said, “I’ll be right there” and then placed the phone back in its cradle.
He looked at her and said, “Harlan has been shot.”
“Oh, no! Harlan? What happened?”
“Intruder. At his house. Just a few minutes ago. He’s on his way to the hospital.” But Buddy Briggs still wasn’t moving. He lay back down and exhaled as if a bad day was just ending instead of beginning. Harlan Stone was one of the closest friends he had in the world.
“Should I go with you to be with Darcy and the boys? They’re all okay, aren’t they?” Amanda asked.
“Yeah. They’re okay.”
“How bad is it, Buddy? And I dread asking you that because I don’t want to hear it.
“He’s alive. But how bad? I’m not sure. Nobody is yet. That’s where I’ll go first. To the hospital. Then I’ll let you know.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“No. You stay here in case Shirley Ann calls. You may wind up at the hospital anyway if the baby comes early.”
He closed his eyes, and she rubbed his arm.
“Before I go, I need to call Cal,” Buddy said more to himself than to Amanda.
But before he could reach for the phone, a sudden loud voice startled them. “This is Crazy Charlie and it’s raging hot and the ole coffee pot is steaming and screaming and you lazy heads better get out of bed cause it’s five thirty-one and that lucky ole sun …”
Buddy slammed his fist hard on the Off button and dressed quickly in silence.
Amanda was at the counter pouring herself a cup of coffee when he walked past her and stopped at the kitchen phone on the wall. She knew, without looking, the number he was dialing. She could faintly hear Cal answer at the Methodist parsonage and then Buddy say, “Harlan has been shot. I’m on my way to the hospital. Meet me there.”
Posted by Bonnie S. Calhoun at 10:31 PM