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Authors: James McBride

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BOOK: The Good Lord Bird
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Doyle was white-faced. “He don't live here.”

“I know that,” the Old Man said, though he didn't know it. He had just learnt it. “Is you related to him?”

“None of us here is.”

“Is you Pro Slavers or against?”

“I don't own no slaves myself.”

“I ain't ask that. Ain't I seen you at Dutch Henry's?”

“I was just passing through,” Doyle said. “He lives down the road a piece, don't you remember?”

“I don't recollect every step I take in doing my duties as the Almighty directs me to them,” the Old Man said, “for I am commingling with His spirit almost every minute. But I do recollects you being one of them ruffians wanting to blast me over there.”

“But I'm not Dutch,” Doyle said. “Dutch's Tavern is two miles east.”

“And a heathen's haven it is,” the Old Man said.

“But I didn't fire on you,” Doyle pleaded. “I could have but didn't.”

“Well, you should have. You kin to Dutch, by the way?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Well, I ask you again. Is you for slavery or not?”

“You won't find one slave 'round here,” Doyle said. “I got nar one.”

“Too bad, for this is a big homestead,” Old Brown said. “It's a lot of work to keep it going.”

“You telling me,” Doyle said. “I got more plowing than me and my boys can handle. I could use a couple of niggers around here. You can't make it in Kansas Territory without help. Why, just yesterday—”

And then he stopped, for he knowed he made a mistake. Old Brown's face changed. The years dropped off him, and a youngness climbed into him. He straightened up and his jaw poked out. “I come to deliver the Redeemer's justice to free His people. And to exact the Lord's revenge on the murdering and kidnapping of the Negro people by slavers and them like yourself who has robbed and stole in the name of that infernal institution. And all that it involves, and all who's involved in it, who has partaken in its spoils and frivolities. There ain't no exceptions.”

“Do that mean you don't like me?” Doyle said.

“Step outside,” the Old Man said.

Doyle growed white as a sheet and pleaded his case. “I meant you no harm at Dutch's,” he said. “I'm just a farmer trying to make a dollar change pockets.” Then he suddenly swiveled his head, glanced at the window—my face was stuck dead in it and the window was right there—and saw me peering in, wearing a dress and bonnet. A puzzled look come across his face, which was stone-cold frightened. “Ain't I seen you before?” he asked.

“Save your howdys for another time. I'm doing the talking here,” Brown said. “I'll ask you for the last time. Is you Free State or Slave State?”

“Whatever you say,” Doyle said.

“Make up your mind.”

“I can't think with a Sharps under my chin!”

The Old Man hesitated, and Doyle was almost off the hook, till his wife hollered out, “I told you, Doyle! This is what you get for running with them damn rebels.”

“Hush, Mother,” he said.

It was too late then. The cat was out the bag. Brown nodded to his boys, who grabbed Doyle and throwed him and his two older boys out the door. When they reached for the last, the youngest, the mother throwed herself at Old Brown.

“He's just sixteen,” the missus pleaded. “He ain't had nothing to do with them law-and-order people. He's just a boy.”

She pleaded with the Old Man something terrible, but he weren't listening. He was lost. Seemed like he went to a different place inside his head. He looked past her head, beyond her, like he was looking to heaven or something far off. He got downright holy when it was killing time. “Take thine own hand and split an ax with it,” he said. “That's Eucclestsies twelve seven or thereabouts.”

“What's that mean?” she asked.

“This one's coming with me, too.”

Well, she fell on her knees and howled and pleaded and scratched some more, so much she throwed the Old Man out of his killing stupor for a minute, and he said, “All right. We'll leave him. But I'm keeping a man with a muzzle trained on this door. If you or anybody else pokes their head outside it, they gonna chew a powder ball.”

He left a man to watch the door and split the rest, half taking Doyle to one part of the thickets, the other half a few yards off with Doyle's two boys. I followed Fred, Owen, and the Old Man, who took Doyle a few steps into the thicket, stopped, and placed him standing with his back to a large tree. Doyle, barefoot, quaked like a knock-kneed chicken and begun moaning like a baby.

The Old Man ignored that. “Now, I'mma ask you for the last time. Is you Pro Slavery or Free State?” Brown said.

“It was just talk,” Doyle said. “I didn't mean nothing by it.” He commenced to shaking and crying and begging for his life. His sons, several feet away, couldn't see him, but they heard him bellowing like a broke calf and begun to moan and howl as well.

The Old Man didn't say nothing. Seem like he was hypnotized. He didn't seem to see Doyle. I couldn't stand it, so I moved out the thicket, but not fast enough, for Doyle seen me in the glint of the moonlight and suddenly recognized me. “Hey,” he said suddenly. “Tell 'em I'm all right! You know me! Tell 'em. I never done you no wrong.”

“Shush,” Brown said. “I'll ask you for the last time. Is you a Pro Slaver or not!”

“Don't hurt me, Captain,” Doyle said. “I'm just a man trying to make a living slinging wheat and growing butter beans.”

He might as well have been singing to a dead hog. “You didn't say that to Lew Shavers, and them two Yankee women you ravaged outside Lawrence,” the Old Man said.

“That weren't me,” Doyle murmured quietly. “Just those I knowed.”

“And you wasn't there?”

“I was. But that . . . was a mistake. It weren't me that done that.”

“I'll beg the Lord your forgiveness, then,” Brown said. He turned to Fred and Owen and said, “Make quick work of it.”

By God, them two raised their swords and planted them right in the poor man's head, and down he went. Doyle wanted to live so bad he fell down and got up in the same motion, with Fred's broadsword still planted in his skull, scrambling for life. Owen struck him again and knocked his head nearly clean off, and this time he went down and stayed there, still twitching as he lay on his side, legs running sideways, but even with his head half sheared off, Doyle hollered like a stuck hog long enough for his sons, not more than ten yards off in the thickets, to hear. The sound of their Pa's getting murdered and bellowing spooked them to howling like coyotes, till the thud of swords striking their heads echoed out the thicket and they was quieted up. Then it was done.

They stood in the thicket, the whole bunch of 'em panting and exhausted for a minute, then a terrible howling emerged. I jumped in my skin, thinking it was from the dead themselves, till I saw a soul running off through the woods and seen it was one of Brown's own sons, John. He ran toward the cabin clearing, squawking like a madman.

“John!” the Old Man hollered, and took off after him, the men following.

There weren't going to be another chance. I turned into the thickets where the wagon and two horses were tethered. One of them, Dutch's old pinto, had been ridden over by one of the Old Man's men. I leaped atop it, turned it toward Dutch's, and put it to work as fast as it would go. Only when I was clear of the thickets did I look behind me to see if I was clear, and I was. I'd left them all behind. I was gone.

5

Nigger Bob

I
made it to the California Trail as fast as that horse could stand it, but after a while she tired down and moved to a trot, so I ditched her, for light was coming and me riding her would attract questions. Niggers couldn't travel alone in them days without papers. I left her where she was and she trotted on ahead while I moved on foot, staying off the road. I was a mile from Dutch's Tavern when I heard a wagon coming. I jumped into the thickets and waited.

The trail curved around and dipped before it hit an open wood area near where I was, and around the curve, up over the dip, came an open-back wagon driven by a Negro. I decided to take a chance and hail him down. I was about to jump out when, around the curve behind him, a posse of sixteen redshirts on horses in columns of twos appeared. They was Missourians, and traveling like an army.

Sunlight was laying across the plains now. I laid in the thickets, crouched behind a row of bramblers and thick trees, waiting for them to pass. Instead, they halted at the clearing just a few feet from me.

In the back of the wagon was a prisoner. An elderly white feller in a beard, dirty white shirt, and suspenders. His hands was free but his feet was roped to a metal circular hook built into the floor of the wagon. He looked downright tight. He sat near the back flap of the wagon, while the rest passed a bottle of joy juice among them, regarding him.

A man rode to the front of them, a sour-looking feller with a face like molded bread, pock-faced. I reckon he was their leader. He dismounted his horse, swayed, two sheets to the wind, then suddenly swerved around and staggered right toward me. He stepped to the woods not two feet off from where I crouched hidden. He swayed so close to my hiding place I saw the inside of his ear, which looked like the cross-section of a cucumber. But he didn't spot me for he was clean soused. He leaned against the other side of the tree where I hid, and emptied his bladder, then staggered into the clearing again. From his pocket he brung out a rumpled piece of paper and addressed the prisoner.

“Okay, Pardee,” he said. “We gonna try you right here.”

“Kelly, I already told you I weren't a Yank,” the old man said.

“We's see,” Kelly mumbled. He held the rumpled piece of paper up to the sunlight. “I got several resolutions here saying the Free State men is liars and law-breaking thieves,” he said. “You read them out loud. Then sign them all.”

Pardee snatched the paper. He held it close to his eyes, then far off at arm's length, then close again, straining to see. Then he thrust it back at Kelly. “My eyes ain't what they once was,” he said. “You g'wan and read it.”

“You ain't got to follow it to the dot,” Kelly barked. “Just put your mark on it and be done with it.”

“I ain't scratching my name to nothing till I know what it is,” Pardee grumbled.

“Stop making it tough, ya stupid idiot. I'm making it easy for ya.”

Pardee throwed his eyes to the paper again and started reading.

He took his time about it. Five minutes passed. Ten. The sun shone full overhead and the liquor bottle the men passed around was emptied and tossed. Another liquor bottle appeared. They passed that. Twenty minutes passed. He was still reading.

Several fellers dozed off while Kelly sat on the ground, doodling with his gun belt, drunk as a fish. Finally he looked up at Pardee. “What you waiting on, the steamboat?” he snapped. “Just sign it. It's just a few declarations.”

“I can't read 'em all at once,” Pardee said.

Well, it occurred to me that Pardee probably couldn't read at all. But he acted like he could. The men begun to curse him. They cursed him for the better part of ten minutes. He kept on reading. One man went up to Pardee and blowed cigar smoke in his face. Another come up and yelled into his ear. A third come up, hawked, and spit right on his face. That made him put the paper down.

“Hatch, I'm gonna bust you across the jibs once I get clear here,” Pardee growled.

“Just finish!” Kelly said.

“I can't read with your cousin screwing up my figuring. Now I got to start all over again.”

He throwed the paper to his face again. The men grew more furious. They threatened to tar and feather him. They promised to hold an auction and let the Negro driver sell him. Still, Pardee kept reading. Wouldn't look up. Finally Kelly stood up.

“I'mma give you one last chance,” he said. He looked serious now.

“Okay,” Pardee said. He thrust the paper out to Kelly. “I'm finished. I can't sign it. It's illegal.”

“But it's signed by a bona fide judge!”

“I don't care if it's signed by Jesus H. Christ. I ain't signing nothin' that I don't know what it is. I don't understand nothin' in it.”

Now Kelly got mad. “I'm giving you a break, ya watery-mouth, yellow-livered Free Stater. Sign it!”

“That's some way to treat a feller who rode cattle with you for two years.”

“That's the only reason you're drawing air now.”

“You lyin', bowlegged cockroach. You just tryin' to stake my claim!”

That stirred the men. Suddenly the thing went the other way. Claim jumpers in Kansas, folks who throwed themselves on another's land who already made a claim on that land, why, they was almost worse than horse and nigger thieves.

“Is that true, Kelly?” one of them asked. “You trying to stake his land?”

“Course not,” Kelly said hotly.

“He's straight out been aiming on my land since we got here,” Pardee said. “That's why you calling me a Yank, ya leech!”

“You's a blue-bellied, pet house-paupin' liar!” Kelly roared. He snatched the paper from Pardee and gived it to the driver of the wagon, a Negro.

“Nigger Bob, you read it out loud,” he said. He turned to Pardee. “And whatever that nigger reads off here, if you don't agree and sign off on it, I'm gonna bust a charge into your neck and be done with you.”

He turned to the Negro. “G'wan and read it, Nigger Bob.”

Nigger Bob was a hardy, tall, fit Negro, not more than twenty-five, setting atop the driver's bench on the wagon. He took the paper with shaking hands, his eyes wide as silver dollars. That nigger was panicked. “I can't read, boss,” he stammered.

“Just read it.”

“But I don't know what it says.”

“G'wan and read it!”

That Negro's hands shook and he stared at the paper. Finally he blurted nervously, “Een-y. Mean-y. Mine-y. Moe. One-two-three.”

Several men burst out laughing, but Kelly was hot now, as was several others, for the men growed impatient.

“Kelly, let's hang Pardee and get up the road,” one said.

“Let's tar and feather him.”

“What you fooling 'round for, Kelly? Let's go.”

Kelly waved them to silence, then blew out his cheeks, hemming and hawing. He didn't know whether to shit or go blind. Being full of gulp sauce weren't helping him, neither. He said, “Let's vote on it. All in favor of hanging Pardee for being a nigger-loving Free State Yankee and an agent of the New England Emigrant Yellow Belly Society, raise your hand.”

Eight hands were raised.

“All in favor of not hanging?”

Eight more hands went up.

I counted sixteen men. It was a tie.

Kelly stood there swaying, drunk, in a quandary. He tottered over to Nigger Bob, who sat in the wagon driver's seat, trembling. “Since Pardee here's an abolitionist, we'll let Nigger Bob decide. What's your vote, Nigger Bob? Hang Pardee here or not?”

Pardee, setting in the back of the wagon, suddenly leaped up in a snit. “Hang me then!” he howled. “I'd rather hang than have a nigger vote on me!” he cried, then tried to leap out the wagon, but fell flat on his face, for his feet were tied.

The men howled even more. “You pukin' abolitionist egghead,” Kelly said, laughing, as he helped Pardee up. “You should'a read them resolutions like I told you.”

“I can't read!” Pardee said.

That stopped Kelly cold and he took his hands off Pardee like he was electrified. “What? You said you could!”

“I was lying.”

“What about that land title at Big Springs? You said it was . . .”

“I don't know what that was. You wanted it so damn bad!”

“You blockhead!”

Now it was Kelly's turn to be on the spot while the other men laughed at him! “You should'a said something, ya damn dummy,” he growled. “Whose land is it then?”

“I don't know,” Pardee sniffed. “But you been told. Now. You read these resolutions to me and I'll sign 'em.” He thrust the paper out to Kelly.

Kelly hemmed and hawed. He coughed. He blew his nose. He flustered around. “I ain't much on reading,” he muttered. He snatched the paper from Pardee and turned to the posse. “Who here reads?”

Weren't a man among them spoke. Finally a feller in the back said, “I ain't setting here watching you fiddle with your noodle a minute more, Kelly. Old Man Brown's hiding out near here somewhere, and I aim to find him.”

With that he galloped off, and the men followed. Kelly rushed to follow them, staggering to his mount. When he swung his horse around, Pardee said, “At least gimme my gun back, ya knobhead.”

“I sold it in Palmyra, ya mule-face abolitionist. I oughta kick your teeth out for screwing up that land title,” Kelly said. He rode off with the rest.

Pardee and Nigger Bob watched him leave.

When he was out of sight, Nigger Bob moved from the driver's seat to the back and untied Pardee's ankles without a word.

“Ride me home,” Pardee fumed. He said it over his shoulder as he rubbed his ankles, setting in back of the wagon.

Nigger Bob hopped into the driver's seat, but didn't move. He sat atop the wagon and looked straight ahead. “I ain't riding you no place,” he said.

That floored me. I had never heard a Negro talk to a white man like that before in my entire life.

Pardee blinked, stunned. “What you say?”

“You heard it. This here wagon belongs to Mr. Settles and I'm taking it home to him.”

“But you got to pass Palmyra! That's right where I live.”

“I ain't going nowhere with you, Mr. Pardee. You can go where you want, however you please. But this here wagon belongs to Marse Jack Settles. And he ain't give me no permission to ride nobody in it. I done what Mr. Kelly said 'cause I had to. But I ain't got to now.”

“Git down off that seat and come down here.”

Bob ignored him. He sat in the driver's seat, staring off into the distance.

Pardee reached for his heater, but found his holster empty. He stood up and glared at Nigger Bob like he was fit to whup him, but that Negro was bigger than him and I reckon he thought better of it. Instead, he jumped down off the wagon, stomped down the road a piece, picked up a large stone, walked back to the wagon, and chinked out the wood cotter pin on one of the wagon wheels. Just banged it right out. That pin held the wheel on. Bob sat there as he chinked. Didn't move.

When Pardee was done, he throwed the pin in the thickets. “If I got to walk home, you walking too, ya black bastard,” he said, and stomped up the road.

Bob watched him till he was out of sight, then climbed down from the wagon and looked at the wheel. I waited several long minutes before I finally come out the woods. “I can help you fix that if you take me up the road a piece,” I said.

He stared at me, startled. “What you doing out, little girl?” he said.

Well, that throwed me, for I forgot how I was done up. I quick tried to untie the bonnet. But it was tied tight. So I went at the dress, which was tied from behind.

“Good Lord, child,” Bob said. “You ain't got to do that to get no ride from Nigger Bob.”

“It ain't what it looks like,” I said. “In fact, if you'd be so kind as to help me take this thing off—”

“I'll be heading out,” he said, backing away.

But I had my chance and I weren't going to lose it. “Wait a minute. Help me. If you don't mind, just untie—”

Good God, he jumped atop the wagon, hustled onto the driver's seat, called up that horse to trotting, and was off, pin or no pin. He got about ten yards before that back wheel got to wobbling so bad—it just about come clean off—before he stopped. He jumped down, pulled a stick from the thickets, stuck it into the pin hole, and commenced to banging it into place. I ran up on him.

“I got business, child,” he said, chinking away at the wheel. He wouldn't look up at me.

“I ain't a girl.”

“Whatever you think you is, honey, I don't think it's proper that you unstring that dress from 'round yourself in front of ol' Nigger Bob—a married man.” He paused a minute, glanced around, then added, “Less'n you want to, of course.”

“You got a lot of salt talking that way,” I said.

“You the one asking for favors.”

“I'm trying to get to Dutch's Crossing.”

“For what?”

“I live there. I'm Gus Shackleford's boy.”

“That's a lie. Old Gus is dead. And he ain't have no girl. Had a boy. Wasn't worth shit neither, that child.”

“That's a hell of a thing to say 'bout somebody you don't know.”

“I don't know you, child. You a sassy thing. How old are you?”

“It don't matter. Take me back to Dutch's. He'll give you a little something for me.”

“I wouldn't ride to Dutch's for a smooth twenty dollars. They'll kill a nigger in there.”

“He won't bother you. It's Old John Brown he's after.”

At the mention of that name, Bob glanced around, taking stock up and down the trail, making sure nobody was rolling toward us. The trail was empty.


The
John Brown?” he whispered. “He's really 'round these parts?”

BOOK: The Good Lord Bird
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