Authors: Breena Clarke
Tags: #Fiction / African American / Historical, #FICTION / Historical
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“If your women are not brave, it will not matter that your men are. For your children will not live long and your People will perish.”
—RUSSELL SITTON, 1780
listen little sister
angels make their hope here
in these hills
I will guide you
I will guide you
word for word
mouth for mouth
all the holy ones
all our kin
making home here
grace these mountains
we have earth to bind us
can never be broken
vows to live and let live
HOULD HE OR SHOULDN’T HE
burn the lowlander’s house? Was he a burner? Should he burn them people’s house to free the girl? Did he know what way the wind was blowing? Was she safe in the barn?
Indians, Africans, and amalgamators! Always caught up in fire startin’ is what the whites say. The lowland white farmers are scared of burnouts from hostiles. Ha! Well they ought to be. The People have redressed wrongs and prevented trouble by burning their enemies before.
Burning folk out—ruining what they built—is a serious thing, though. Maybe the slavery of one little girl ain’t enough to make it justified? Ah, these people are not fit for their farm! Their enterprises have failed. They have brush near the house. The woman is lazy. They have no water trough close by. The man is stupid. They should abandon the place.
Maybe they will blame the boy who works for them? He is a white, but he’s a motherless bastard they despise. That boy will be lighting out soon. He’s putting things by. That boy will take a horse and head off as soon as he sees a chance. Is it horse stealing if you take a thing that is owed to you for the life you put into an enterprise? Duncan thought not!
Duncan Smoot has never honored a bargain that was breached
by carelessness, disregard, dishonor. The boy was doing what any sound man or boy would do under the current situation. But with him gone these folk will put more work onto the little bond child. They will likely run her down to her skeleton.
Duncan Smoot, a practiced hunter, kept himself concealed. He looked up into the sky—into the trees—and saw few birds. But bird sounds reached him. They were incongruous. He observed the girl’s travails. Is she the one he’d missed taking up because of the arrest of the Evangelist? Was this the very same girl after so long a time? He knew what happened to the Evangelist. Word was passed. They said the young girl was traveling with her. They lost her on the road when the Evangelist was taken up. It was the policy of those who transported the secret cargo on the canals and rivers that they off-load their responsibilities at different and varied stops so that risks were shared and watchers were fooled. It was vital also that, at the busy docksides and way stations, the wayfarer not be lost to the hands of a profiteer. Stationmasters and other agents of the shadow network knew when to expect their packages as information traveled ahead. Is this the girl he was to have taken up? Had the Abingdon ring grabbed her instead? If so, these lowlanders—these so-called farmers—had bought her off the Abingdons and were using her like she’s a slave.
Evangelist Zilpha Seabold was a clever, well-prepared wanderer, but she had been caught. There was no reliable information about the girl she was conducting when arrested. Duncan Smoot was to have been the next link—the next conductor. He was to have met her near the town of Peach Bottom and taken her on to other helpers. He was a happy cog. He was satisfied to be neither the first nor the last of the chain. But the
failure of this endeavor stung him. It irked him being unable to find the girl and know she was freed.
Duncan canvassed the colored towns and the fringe settlements looking for her. If she’d been taken in or helped along, then he would be content. He would know. He looked and searched in the woods where the girl was separated from the Evangelist. He talked to like-minded folk. News of Evangelist Zilpha Seabold was troublingly consistent. The hooting and hollering preacher woman was said to have been put in stocks and, by all accounts, tortured. Duncan’s informants said her face was pulpy and her legs broken when they last lay eyes on her. No word of the girl. Reports of the pitiful state of the Evangelist surely meant that she had not given up any names or hideouts. Bless her, she had suffered for her folk!
It is time for a bold action! Duncan thought. He knew himself to be a man consecrated to a cause and pledged to a purpose. Mostly he worked within the system and was one of a chain of folk who followed on the information of others. Now was time for him to act on his own gut.
“What you thinkin’ ’bout, Duncan? You’re a-ponderin’?” Mama would say when he was small and thoughtful. Duncan had been a ponderer when he was a young boy. Then when his sister, Hattie, came, his mama forgot to hold off his tormentors. His cousins, a few years older, were cruel boys. They toughened him up and turned him quickly from a ponderer to a plotter, a schemer, a burner, and an eye gouger.
New York! New Amsterdam! Ach! Grandmother spit when she say it. She say “since when is new?” Grandmother’s spittle runs into our creeks. It sustains us. We won’t die of thirst in these hills. Our Grandmother sleeps there up ahead. She is taking her well-earned
nap. Her lips fall back. Spittle runs out of the side of her mouth while she sleeps. The hills, the outcroppings, the ridges, these are her misshapen teeth. Them sharp juts are what remain when flesh pulls back from bone.
It is no doubt that grabbing off this girl from the lowlanders is against some law. Thou shalt not steal off your neighbor’s bond servant, your neighbor’s slave, or your neighbor’s wife. Can you steal off a girl who has already been stolen? Duncan knew he was taking a lot on himself, but surely these lowlanders were holding her by illegal and immoral means. It itched him. It bothered him.
The ring had been uncovered and verified in Philadelphia. They were nefarious. They worked by chicanery to take custody of their victims. Josiah Abingdon and his confederates were a clutch of despicable pirates of all colors who operated a shadow underground. Young escapees were lured or fell into their hands then were sold outright to a variety of work situations. Profit from the sale of children was good because they offered little resistance, and their fear and confusion made them easy to control.
This much Duncan knew for certain: the child he had been searching for had passed into unscrupulous hands, was sold and taken off by this derelict farmer named Logan and his wife.
Was he so fixed on it because of what had happened to Pippy?
As Duncan advanced his plan he mulled the man whose destiny he was changing. Logan was a fool with no neighbors. He’d not even made a dam to exploit the stream that ran in back of his place. If he had water and buckets to dip it, he might save some portion of the house. He is stupid and lazy and not one who would stick in this place.
Duncan watched. They had no dog to raise an alarm that an interloper was nearby? He wondered at a keen man being so careless. At his home in Russell’s Knob no unknown man or animal could come so close unobserved.
She’s a wisp of a child. She’s a bit younger than the boys—than Jan and Pet. Oh! His sensitive insides were softening for her? Pinched and burdened with work, she is losing strength with each day. They feed her little—just bread and what she takes from the cow. Pet’s dogs sleep closer to the fire.
She is kept punishingly busy with tasks. The farmer’s wife seems only strong enough to force the girl to lift and haul and sweep and fetch. She misses no chance to beat and slap at the girl.
Duncan flushed with remorse remembering his chastisement of his nephew, Jan. He’d been so angry that he’d forgotten Jan was a child. He was a willful, irresponsible child who was a bad influence on his younger cousin. But he’d been too hard with him. The child had knelt all night, had listened to him rail, had collapsed in a faint at dawn. Later he had run off.
He resolved to grab the girl up. He resolved to burn the lowlanders out. He figured they meant to use up the little girl, then sell her south. Neither of them was above it. They had a smell about them—an aroma of unconscionable avarice. They would sell her and have the money to go to fail in the farther west.
Duncan Smoot knew the house would burn as he meant it to. He resolved firmly to burn it for them.
He risked a lot of trouble for a little dross. No, no. No. They called her Dossie. Her name is Dossie. Was it for the little Dossie he did it? Was it on account of her that he did so grave a thing? Her tiny goodness and complete helplessness was what
did it then—that convinced him? She has two eyes still! Take her up while she still has two eyes to see from. Dossie, Dossie, Dossie. Was it a chirrup from a bird he’d never before listened to?
Duncan attached a bundle of dry brush to the tail of a possum and lit it and chased the poor terrified animal into the yard that had more dry grass and brush. An untidy farmstead is a dangerous place. There is much fodder for flames. And because the wind came in from the northwest and Duncan Smoot knew that it would, it whipped the fire and pushed it toward the Logans’ house and away from the barn.
Duncan knew there was time enough for Mister and Missus to run out of their beds and escape with their lives. They would be startled out. No dog to raise a ruckus! The boy would call out before he rode off. They would certainly rush for their clothes and their money.
And he could escape with the girl. Dossie. The name made him smile. He had heard them calling her in calloused voices. He knew it was a sound that sang and delighted the ear if the voice but said it right.
The girl had come to feel that the cow loved her—cared for her—was concerned with her fate. The animal responded kindly. She turned her head when her teats were touched, and her milk let down when the girl stroked her flank. Her tail brushed gently and distributed her smelly gases far and wide.
“You got a deliverer coming,” the cow said with satisfaction. She moved her mouth in its customary circuit. “Stay alive until he comes,” the cow exhorted upon an exhalation—a snort of breath that raised up chaff and dander. As the pressure in her
udders eased under the girl’s squeezes, she added brightly, “He’s coming soon.”
The girl was given only bread and the cow’s milk. Since she was given no other thing—no meat or apple—to fill up, her stomach was stalled and queasy. The cow pitied her and wished she could nibble on grass. The cow swatted flies off her own ass and wondered what was taking the deliverer so long to come.
When in the morning the heavens were clear. Dossie opened the door to the barn a crack and peeped. The bright light startled her. It was the same as to open all the windows in a house and let the sunshine come in like streams of yellow glory. Dossie felt the hot air on her face and sang her morning birdcalls like Bil and Ooma would do when the day came bright. She stood in the doorway of the barn, looked back at the cow, smiled, and thanked her. Though she would leave off sleeping with cows, she was filled with a notion of kind regard for and heartfelt appreciation of cows. Dossie turned and walked off. She looked back again to see the boy leading a horse with a bundle tied to the saddle. She saw the unsteady, middling tree that stood aside the house fall in and crush what remained of the charred roof. Smoke smell was in the air. Feeling still in her head, she walked away to the clearing at the edge of the Logans’ tract where their cries of alarm did not reach.
Duncan Smoot took the girl away from the Logan farm on foot uphill—her small hand buried completely in his much-larger one. They followed a trail cut by a stream and marked by slick boulders. Water ambled downstream and reflected sparkles of
the sun. She walked behind him and troubled to keep step. Perhaps he lifted her from the ground? Yes, when they reached the tall marsh grass at the edge of the stream, he lifted her and carried her across it. Did he carry her through the dense cover that bordered the Logan farm? No. No. He put her down and her feet passed over the ground—over rocks, moss, through a dry streambed.
She felt herself borne along with the man as a mite in his pocket or a string on his sleeve. Her breath came ragged as they climbed. She was unused to the terrain. Her mind formed little or no idea about her fate. She ought perhaps to have been frightened, but she was not. She believed the cow. At every turn she was treated to a different wonder.