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Authors: Ellen Gray Massey

Morning in Nicodemus

BOOK: Morning in Nicodemus
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Morning in
Goldminds Publishing
1050 Glenbrook Way, Suite 480
Hendersonville, TN 37075
Morning in Nicodemus
Copyright © Ellen Gray Massey, 2009.
Cover Photos:
“Sunrise on the Tallgrass Prairie” 
by Eugene A. Williams, Omnivert LLC, Copyright © 2009
“Black Cowboy” by Beverly & Pack, 
Copyright © 2009
PUBLISHER'S NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are a product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.Printed in the United States of America. Without limiting the rights under the copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
Author's Note
Today Nicodemus, Kansas, is only a few buildings but it once flourished. Like many towns in the West, when the railroad missed it, it died. In 1877 a White land promoter, W.R. Hill, and a Black preacher, Rev. WH. Smith formed Nicodemus Township Company on land formerly considered uninhabitable, the Great Plains, often called the Great American Desert. Advertised mainly in Kentucky and Tennessee, Blacks only a few years out of slavery came to “The Promised Land,” an all-Black community of homesteaders and businessmen.
The Lander family in my story is fictional, but they could have been real.
    “Virgil! Marcus!” Liberty screamed as she raced into their sod house. Her older brothers were just finishing the breakfast she had fixed for them. Alerted by her geese's squawking and the noise of the horses' movements in their paddock, Liberty had stepped outside to see what was bothering them.
   Both young men jumped up at her frightened tone. “Virgil, Marcus!” she repeated, “I smell smoke and—”
   Before she could say the next word, they raced out the door and looked southwest. A gray wisp of smoke spiraled skyward west of the freshly green plot where they had stripped off some prairie sod and planted winter wheat. 
   “Quick! Get some old tarps,” Marcus yelled to Liberty.
   “And the water bucket,” Virgil shouted, though one bucket of water wouldn't be of much help in a prairie fire. 
   The boys each grabbed a grubbing hoe and raced through the new spring grass toward the smoke. Liberty pulled the tarps out from under their bed pads and ran after them.
   Without studying the smoky area, Marcus zeroed in on the fire. With dogged determination, he clutched the edge of one of the tarps and lifted it over his head. Repeatedly he beat it on the ground, trying to stamp out the multiple fingers of orange flames that were steadily burning the dead stalks under the new growth of grass.
   Liberty copied her brother. Eyes smarting and coughing from the smoke, she slapped her tarp at the low flames.
   In contrast to Marcus's frenzy, Virgil paused to scan the area before he did anything. In the few seconds he hesitated, the fire intensified, ignoring Marcus's and Liberty's feeble attempts to control it. While they smothered one flame, another caught a tuft of dried grass to blaze up. The new flame ignited the next nearest dead grass. The fire spread rapidly. Farther out where it was free to spread, flames soared.
   “Do something!” Marcus ordered his older brother. “Don't just stand there. Help us stomp it out.”
   “We can't put it out,” Virgil said. “It's got too big a head start.” He noticed with relief that the wind was unusually quiet this morning, though there was just enough southern breeze to fan the fire. Unchecked, it would soon reach their soddy and livestock. “We've got to divert it.”
   Marcus paused and looked back to their sod house built into a rise in the prairie. “You're right.” 
   “Make it go straight north, not northeast to our place,” Virgil yelled. “I'll clear out as much of the dead grass as I can on our side. Maybe it'll go around us.”
   For the next half hour the three worked as a team. Marcus and Liberty slapped out the fingers of fire that spread east. 
   They let the main body of the fire rage northward into the open prairie. Virgil grubbed, raked, and pulled out the flammable material under the short, new grass in a semi-circle around their soddy, garden, and livestock pens. The slight remnants of morning dew and the cover of new green grass which didn't burn, saved them. But farther out, where the dried stalks from last year were especially thick, the flames shot eight feet into the sky.
   The fire moved north beyond their improvements, blocked from coming their way by their efforts and the patch of green wheat. The siblings stopped. “Let it go,” Virgil said, breathing hard. “Our place is safe.” 
   Panting from their exertion, the three hugged one another. “We're saved?” Liberty asked.
   “Yes,” Virgil said, wiping a smudge off her face with his bandana.
   “Will it start again?” she asked looking at the black, scorched area that stretched all the way to the river.
   “No, not this year. There's nothing left to burn and the new grass that will come won't burn. We're saved this time.”
   Marcus was unusually quiet as they trudged back to their sod home. All were exhausted, but Liberty, still high from her efforts and celebrating their success, chatted non-stop. Though her hands were covered with grime, and her dress filthy with a few holes burned in her ankle-length skirt, she seemed almost giddy with their success. “And I helped put it out,” she said.
   “Yes, you did. Marcus and I couldn't have held it by ourselves, could we, Marc?”
Marcus glanced at each of them quickly. “No,” was all he said.
   “What's the matter, Marc,” Virgil asked when they were at the paddock calming the excited horses. He noticed his brother's sober face and worried look. Marcus kept looking back toward the river.
   “I saw a man back there.”
   “What do you mean? Back in the fire?”
   “Yes. Through the smoke I saw a man watching us. He was on the other side of the line of fire. There on the river bank.”
   “Why didn't he come help us?” Liberty asked.
   “That's what I wondered,” Marcus said. He paused, still looking toward the river. “I think he started the fire on purpose.”
   Virgil stopped short. “Someone started the fire on our land?”
   “That's what I think.”
   “But this is Nicodemus,” Liberty said. “We're all working together. Who could it be?”
   “He was too far away to tell.”
   “Was he a colored man?” Virgil asked. When Marc's lowered eyebrows and a frown was his only answer, Virgil almost whispered, “Was it one of us here in Nicodemus?”
   With tears in his eyes, Marc said, “I think so.”
   Virgil hung his head. They were in Kansas, the promised land where his people were welcomed. The harsh weather and primitive living conditions he could handle. But hostility from one of their own . . .
Chapter One
    “Wake me up!” sang Liberty Lander in April 1879 in her sod home in northwestern Kansas. “Wake me up at the first break of day.” As she washed the dishes and put them on the crude shelves her brother had built, she sang more verses of the song. Most of her words were too low to distinguish until she came to “'Twas a long weary night, but the morning is near—”
   “Oh stop that infernal singing,” Virgil yelled. “I'm sick and tired of hearing it. Don't you know any other song?”
   Liberty frowned at him, mumbling the rest of the song in a soft hum that didn't enunciate the words. When she reached the end of the tune, she hung her dish towel on the peg in the soddy wall above her dish pan and looked steadily into his eyes. “Virgil, today, right here on our land the words of that song will come true. The morning is near. Right here in Nicodemus. Ma and Pa are coming. That's what we've all been working for. So we can all be together again and work our own land. Just like White folks.”
   She held her head high. Her scowl at her brother dared him to contradict her. “Marcus will be bringing them here today.” Then happily, she skipped across the dirt floor to him and hugged him, his tall muscular body dwarfing her. “Oh, Virge, isn't that just wonderful?”
   “You don't know nothing, Lib. They won't be on the train. Just like the other time. Something will come up.” He stifled a sigh and turned his head from the light at the open door. The shadow hid from her the worry on his face.
   Liberty frowned at him. “Yes, they will. They'll come. I know it. I know it. I just know it!”
   “Wanting it won't make it so. Too many things can go wrong.” Virgil didn't want to burst his sister's balloon of happiness, but he had to prepare her that their parents probably wouldn't be on the train their brother Marcus traveled the more than thirty miles across the prairie to meet. “Maybe Miss Grace didn't get the time right in her letter to you. Maybe she sent another one we didn't get. Maybe Ma is—”
   “They're coming, Virge, so don't you say another word.” She stamped her foot and pouted like the fifteen-year-old she was instead of the adult she'd had to be the past year. She ran her hand over her short-cropped, black hair and smoothed her apron over her long calico dress. “Don't even think it.” She grabbed a rag and flitted around the room dusting their sparse, homemade furniture. She refastened a strip of newspaper that was hanging from the earthen wall. “We don't have much, but I want it to be as nice as I can make it for Ma and Pa. They'll be here today, I'm sure.” She glanced out the open door. 
   Infected by her excitement, Virgil also looked across the treeless prairie. He saw no riders approaching. From the doorway he saw the burned-over area which was already greening up. He saw the feeble headway they had made in the year since they arrived in northwestern Kansas—a grassy roadway and the few acres he and Marcus had broken and planted in wheat. 
   He couldn't see the garden plot behind their soddy or the rough enclosure for their cow and calf and for the sow and her new litter of pigs. That was all. Oh, yes. Though he couldn't see it, he pictured the best of all. There was a paddock for the three horses he was able to buy from the money he had saved from his work at a horse barn back in Lexington, Kentucky. A horse for each of them. Quite a luxury. None of his neighbors in this isolated land owned three horses. He had even broken to the plow his special gray, Lady.
   Though Liberty's happy mood made him feel better, Virgil wondered what his parents would think of their wild, lonesome homestead and the pitiful house they lived in. They'd surely expect more for all their sacrifices. For years after their freedom, they had saved what little they could from sharecropping with their former master. They both hired out wherever they could to finance their move—the train tickets for moving out of the poverty-stricken south during the Reconstruction Period after the Civil War, the needed household supplies and tools when they arrived, and for the $5.00 fee for settling in Nicodemus and $2.00 fee to the government for filing charges. They'd done all that without the charity people in neighboring towns offered to other settlers. 
   We did it ourselves. They'll be proud, Virgil thought even though the parents wouldn't know how things really were here, that they were not at all what that White man in their little African American Baptist church in Kentucky had said. Virgil remembered how excited his whole family was at the man's words. His sharp mind remembered them exactly. 
   “The Great Solomon Valley of Kansas offers the opportunity of a lifetime if you are brave enough to seize it.” The White man said the area was blessed with rich soil, plentiful water, stone for building, timber for fuel, a mild climate, and a herd of wild horses waiting to be tamed to the plow.”
   Virgil's face twisted into a scowl. All lies! Except for the rich soil part. That was true. And these words were spoken in a church? The man should burn in hell.
   “Don't look like that, Virge,” Liberty said. “You scare me.”
“Sorry, Lib. I can't help it sometimes. It's not like we thought things would be here.” Many things were wrong, Virgil knew, but not his little sister. He didn't want to frighten her. She was the light that kept him here. Her optimism and general good humor kept him working doggedly on this dry piece of land that in no way compared to the rich land in Kentucky.
   “The folks will love it here,” Liberty said, her lower lip pushed out, daring Virgil to disagree. “No, it isn't like Kentucky, but this is ours.”
   Of course she was right. And he realized that their parents already knew how things were here. Liberty had written them letters, sending them to her former teacher who read them to their parents. How wise they were to send Liberty to the school for former slaves their little church held. Someone in the family needed to learn to read. The brothers couldn't spare the time from work.
   Viewing it from this brighter mood, from just a few dollars when he and his younger brother and sister arrived last year, Virgil decided maybe what they had wasn't so bad after all. 
   Maybe Ma and Pa would realize all they'd done. They wouldn't expect things to be perfect. What he and his brother and sister had here in Nicodemus was better than many of their neighbors had. And certainly far better than their living back in Kentucky after the war—their master barely keeping his plantation from the banker, crops ruined, their hut burned by Ku Klux Klan . . . He could go on and on about the bad conditions all over the South, but he refused to let his mind recall the horrors his family endured.
   Here in the West things were definitely better, even if digging the stubborn sod made permanent blisters on his hands, and the tall, sharp grasses sliced his clothing and sometimes his exposed skin. Even prairie fires. Yes, he liked it here. He especially like the openness, the grandeur and freedom of the great plains. He was just depressed today, fearing that his parents wouldn't come.
   He stepped into the doorway so he could view the line of trees on his land that hid the South Fork of the Solomon River. His handsome face broke into a grin. Fish populated the ever-flowing water, as well as some beaver, otter, and mink. Cottonwood, willow, a few elm, white oak, and sycamore, and other smaller trees and bushes were there for the taking. And his claim even had a small spring that he discovered one day. Cleaning out the deposited soil around the spring and fitting a pipe in the flow, he channeled it to a tub. There it accumulated enough water for them and their livestock. Quite a prize in this semi-arid land. 
   In spite of his worry, his restlessness, and his disappointment in the area, he, Virgil Lander, former slave, owned 160 acres of rich, deep virgin soil along the river. Owned! 
   He gloated in the significance of that word. Signed and official at the settlement of Nicodemus by the representative of the United States Government Land Office. 
   Though at twenty-two he was too old to skip across the floor like Liberty, he was young enough to glory in his achievements. He went over in his mind the line in her song that he liked best, “There are signs in the sky that the darkness is gone . . .”
   His dream was more than that of the African slave, Nicodemus, that the popular song commemorated. In the song the dying slave who foresaw the terrible battles ahead asked to be awakened when the day of freedom came. Virgil's dream was more. He wanted total freedom—social, economic, and political. He and all his people were legally free. 
   But not really. 
   Like the Nicodemus in the song that this settlement was named after, he wanted the words in the song to prove true in all respects for his family. He wanted more than this confining drudgery or just existing here on his homestead. He wanted total freedom.
   Virgil shook himself. Too idealistic. The song said nothing about the lack of money—or the primitive living conditions. It didn't mention the winter blizzards that trapped them in their soddy for days. “The darkness is gone” the words in the song said. Virgil shuddered, remembering that dark experience last winter when they were snowbound. Not yet, he knew. The darkness isn't gone yet. And though as Liberty sang, the morning may be near, it's not here yet.
   Thinking of his parents, he wiped away a tear as he watched Liberty straightening up their bed pads and hanging up some discarded clothing. 
   He prayed that his parents would come not only because he missed them every minute. Also, he wanted them here to relieve him of his burden. He had promised his father he would stay until he came. His family's future depended on him—his parents', Liberty's, and Marcus's. 
   The burden weighed heavily on him. Today he must weed the newly-planted garden or the relentless grass would strangle the new peas and beans. While there was still time this spring, Marcus said they needed to break more prairie land to plant corn. Never any end to that. It was almost as if he and the stubborn sod were at war with each other. One bright spot though. This afternoon he wouldn't need an excuse to go to the river. Liberty needed some fresh fish for supper for the celebration meal she planned to welcome their parents to Kansas. 
   He smiled thinking how wise he was to insist on claiming land that bordered the river even if there was no road into it. Marcus wanted a different plot closer to the town of Nicodemus, but since Virgil was the only one old enough to enter a claim, he won out. When they found the spring, even Marcus approved. Living here he could fish any spare moment he wanted to. Fish had supplemented their diet, along with the rabbits he trapped, the mushrooms, wild greens and edible fruit and berries he found in his excursions over the prairie. This was part of the Great Plains, an area once believed uninhabitable, the Great American Desert. But they didn't starve. 
   The river also furnished some lumber and firewood. For their fires, they didn't have to depend entirely on the dried buffalo chips, which Liberty hated to gather, or the clumps of dried grass which burned up quickly.
   And in spite of Marcus's cool head and managing abilities, it was he, Virgil, who found all those buffalo bones they traded for supplies last winter. Who would have thought the bones would sell for use in making fertilizer? It was he who became friends with the Osage Indians who taught him to hunt deer and elk and to trap the river for pelts. In spite of Pa giving Marcus the leadership, it was he who assured their survival last winter. They didn't give up and leave as over half of the first settlers did. The Landers were still here, and he could hardly wait for Ma and Pa to arrive.
   “Call me if you see the folks coming,” he said to Liberty as he grabbed his hoe to begin his day's work. 
   After checking on the stock and hoeing the rest of the garden, he began removing sod to prepare more ground for planting. “Yes!” His natural good humor returned as he dug out a two-foot square four inch thick piece of sod and stacked it carefully by the others he and Marcus would use later for some building, either another room on their soddy for Ma and Pa or shelters for the animals.
   He amused himself by remembering the areas of this new country he had explored. It was like he had pictures in his mind of each spot. He could take them out and look at them at will, like the new photographs he'd seen, only no one else could see these. Just him. He could still see every detail of the farm they sharecropped in Kentucky. He decided he might as well forget them, for he knew he'd never return there. The wide-open West was his domain now.
   All day he watched and listened for Liberty's whistle announcing Marcus's return. In spite of his negative words to his sister, he really did believe his parents would come this time. 
He wondered why he kept doubting it. Their last letter assured them they had the money for the train fare. But if he kept doubting they would come, he wouldn't be so disappointed when they didn't come. His good mood helped him through the day as he anticipated seeing them. He could bask in the love in Ma's eyes. He could glory in Pa's strength. Then he would no longer have the whole responsibility for the family that Pa entrusted to him when they came to Kansas. He would be free to explore the West, to hunt with his Osage friends. He could leave to his parents the tedious daily farm chores that kept him a captive on the farm.
   Yes, though no longer a slave to his master, he was still tied to his family. His parents coming would truly free him. He could hardly wait.
   Late that afternoon when fishing from the river bank, Virgil heard Liberty's shrill whistle. “Come quickly,” it meant. Marcus is back, he thought jumping up quickly. Ma! Pa! His heart beat strongly as he pulled in his line and grabbed the stick stuck into the mud bank at the water's edge which held his stringer of fish. He dumped out the unused worms and raced across the grass to the soddy.
BOOK: Morning in Nicodemus
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