Fistful of reefer, p.10
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       Fistful of Reefer, p.10
 

           David Mark Brown
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NINE

  The Campfire

  The sun set behind them as they finished up dinner. Muddy held Nena in his arms, content they had been given another day together. He watched Chancho wash the dishes over the fire and pour the extra water on the coals. He muddied the pit about with his boot, careful not to soil the torn tip, and then polished the leather surface clean with spit. After he’d finished and sat back to enjoy his coffee, he noticed Muddy staring at him.

  “Let’s have a good story. Muddy, give us a story. Just no blood-sucking of any sort.”

  Nena leaned into Muddy’s shoulder and squeezed his arm. He loved to surprised her with stories she hadn’t heard, but there were few of those left—some of the old stories, the ones about his people.

  “Tell us an old story.” She looked into his dark eyes where images of past glories swam.

  “I’ll tell a story, but only if you sing a song when I finish.” She scowled at him.

  Chancho clapped, “¡Maravilloso! A story and a song. I’ll sleep like a baby tonight.”

  Nena nestled herself against her man, her form of consent, and Muddy took a moment to locate the story he wanted even though he’d known which one he had to share even before they had cooked their meal. He had saved it for this moment his entire life. Having practiced it in his head for years as a youth he had never spoken it out loud. Finally the moment had come for the telling of the story that defined him.

  “I don’t believe I’ve told you the story of the first African hero of my people, one of the first to taste freedom in Spanish Florida. His story has inspired many young warriors who have followed, including me.”

  Chancho smiled and settled himself until his head rested on his saddle.

  “1739. My people were not even my people yet, but Florida swelled with Seminoles and escaped African slaves from British Carolina plantations. Britain and Spain were ripe for war. Sergeant Jeremiah Tripalo,” Nena caught his eye with the mention of his horse’s name, and he smiled, “rose to prominence among the settlers of the first free black community in North America, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose. Fort Mose. The citizens of Fort Mose were fierce, self-determined warriors. As a strategic settlement, the Spanish trained them and equipped them heavily for war.”

  Muddy took another sip of coffee before continuing. “The blacks had no other option. Defeat to the British meant life as chattel. Desperate men learn quickly to fight. But men burned by the fires of hell while still walking the earth take to fighting easier than drawing breath. Tripalo was the latter.”

  Chancho thought of his friend, Ah Puch, and the scars he had carried from his childhood into his life of banditry. Fighting had been a way of life for him. The connection made Chancho grateful for his upbringing in the orphanage. Although he lacked parents, he’d been sheltered and loved. Muddy continued.

  “After attempting an unsuccessful rebellion, the wife of his youth and his three young children were slaughtered before his eyes by his former master. But instead of pacifying him, the executions caused him to tear out the throats of the two men holding him and nearly beat his master to death before Tripalo fled naked and wounded into the forest.

  “Eventually he took another wife from among a Seminole band living near the fort, and so spent much of his time outside the fort walls. It became well known, the story of his escape, because he spoke of it during his sleep. And it was said he roamed the forest between Fort Mose and British Carolina late at night in a trance, haunted by the tragedy of his past.

  “The Spanish learned of his passion for revenge and his knowledge of the forest, even at night, and promoted him to sergeant. They offered him secret missions to demoralize and destabilize their common British foe. Tripalo’s new job was to incite insurrection and lead uprisings among the African slaves working the plantations. This job became his calling, his mission in life. Without rest he dedicated himself to freeing hundreds of black souls until he became both a living legend and the Black Ghost.

  “Stories about Tripalo spread among the plantations, and by the fall of 1739 plantation owners were preparing for the Black Ghost. At the same time his demons, coupled with his lust for his kindred’s liberty, drove him deeper into British Carolina to lead larger groups of slaves to freedom. One night, word spread to a large plantation north of Stono, South Carolina that the Ghost was coming for his people.

  “He arrived silently at sundown to discover two dozen slaves gathered outside their low-roofed quarters, a roughly chinked log bunkhouse. He grimaced. It would be the largest group he’d tried to liberate at once. A rabble of caged animals, malnourished and scared, they’d made what preparations they could by scraping together a small bundle of stale bread and a stolen canteen of water.

  “The timing felt poor, but he would not abandon his kinsmen. Without a word he ushered his people into the forest. Armed with two ball and cap pistols and a machete, they stole into the shadows and fumbled southward. Unaccustomed to the forest, the large group moved slowly and awkwardly. After an hour Tripalo knew their time was too short and their distance too long. The last two trips had been near escapes requiring minimal blood shed. Tonight his gut told him they would not make Florida without a fight.

  “Only ten miles south of Stono, and more than a dozen miles from Florida and freedom, they’d been run down. The baying of the hounds, bred for cruelty as well as tracking, alerted Tripalo of their pursuers. Looking for an edge, he led his people into a swamp to cancel the advantage of the horses and challenge the hounds. Silently, the Black Ghost and his brothers bobbed in the oily water like logs, all of them now invisible. Through the haze of the darkened swamp they watched with wide eyes as a posse of twenty men on horseback, each with rifle and sword, drew cautiously nearer.

  “For half an hour they floated among snakes and alligators, mouths just above the surface. Half of their pursuers dismounted to search the edges of the swamp more closely, while the other half held the hounds in check for fear of gators. The dogs, frustrated at being restrained, bayed furiously.

  “Without sound the Black Ghost encouraged his brothers to bob closer to the shores rather than further away—closer to the pursuers, closer to the men who had beat, burned, broken and abused them. But they were so many, and well armed. Slowly, Tripalo positioned himself within ten feet of a man on shore. Five feet. He closed his eyes and felt the pulse of the earth combining with the fear of his enemy. Then within arms reach, he opened his eyes and glared into the man’s soul.

  “Fear rippled on the slave owner’s face as Tripalo’s surging muscles rippled the surface of the water. He burst from the brackish swamp. With a single motion he gripped the man’s hair and cut off his head with the machete. Before the decapitated body hit the water Tripalo charged the nearest man on mount, hurdling the head of his first victim with bruising force. As the head struck the man from his horse, the Ghost pounced with gleaming machete.

  “Muskets attempted to track the Ghost when suddenly the waters boiled with hideous life. The hounds broke their bonds and plunged into the torrent. Gators, alerted by blood, joined the fray. Slaves, men formerly bound by their oppressors, leapt from the water with blood-curdling screams, momentarily freezing the posse in place.

  “Finally the cacophony was joined by the percussion of igniting gunpowder. Muskets blazed in a panic, drawing a bead on anything that moved. After several deafening seconds they were spent. Half a dozen slaves lay bleeding or dead. Gators churned the waters while hounds yelped and screamed.

  “The Ghost leapt from horse to horse slashing with his machete, tearing at eyes and biting at throats. But the remaining riders bore down hard on his brothers, now exposed and unarmed. The posse members on foot huddled together, back to back, cutting down black men as they hurdled themselves like human clubs. Just as quickly as the surprise had favored Tripalo and his people, the armament of the posse had shifted the advantage. Exhausted and armed only with their fury, the blacks were no match for plantation men well trained with swords.

  “
One after another the blacks fell and breathed their last yet sweetest breath, releasing their spirits as free men. Tripalo saw only the faces of his fallen sons, his baby daughter, and his wife. He took no notice of the rib jutting from his side, splintered by a musket ball. He did not feel the life ebbing from him, his neck nicked by a gleaming sword. He fought on. He felled six, removing two swords and throwing them toward his remaining brothers.

  “He discovered he could no longer draw breath, so he fought without breathing. He lunged toward a rider, cutting the horse’s front legs out from under him. The beast screeched and collapsed to the forest floor while Tripalo used the entire weight of his body to drive his machete through the man’s neck.

  “Seven. He staggered to his feet, seizing for breath, clutching his neck. He begged God for a few more moments to exact his revenge and to free his brothers. He had no voice left so he hurled himself silently toward the posse members left on foot, held at bay by his two brothers armed with swords.

  “Before he reached the remaining clump of four, still fighting back to back, he flung his machete with all the force he could muster. It cut deep into the meat of a man’s shoulder, breaking his collar bone and dropping him to his knees. Then, like a fragmenting cannon ball, Tripalo spent his last on the three men still standing. He burst head first into another man’s skull, cracking it with his own. Like a lead flag unfurling, he draped his dying body over them with crushing weight.

  “The two black men with swords dispatched the plantation men from where they gasped under the Black Ghost’s body. Without warning, two more rode from the shadows with gleaming swords. In an instant the last of the blacks fell, bleeding out in the same clump of mortal ransom just paid to the demon of slavery, captor and slave alike.

  “All said, six posse members survived the massacre. Cursing the devil that created black men, they left the dead for the gators and returned home. After the feeding frenzy died down the swamp fell silent. One surviving black man came trembling out of the water. He had never moved during the entire fight. Frozen with fear and immobilized by years of abuse, he watched his brothers die.

  “Anger swelling in his heart, he laid his hand on the chest of the Black Ghost, still warm with the memory of life. A single tear streaked his cheek, and he swore a solemn oath over the dead body of the first hero of my people that it would be his last tear as a slave. It is said that the man who swore that oath was my great, great, great, great, great grandfather, and the founder of our tribe.”

  With sudden finality Muddy fell silent. The three friends each took a deep breath. Minutes passed as the story generated a heat in Chancho’s soul—a passion to sacrifice himself heroically and break the bonds of injustice. Next he fell into a deep reverie of his childhood, of the woman who first ignited his soul with stories of liberty, freedom and courage—with the stories of the black Seminole. The same woman, Muddy’s grandmother, had trained her grandson to carry on the tradition.

  He was now the best among the black Seminole, a people which over the years Chancho had longed to adopt as his own. He had no other people. No heritage or legacy to call on for guidance or direction. The Mexican revolution no longer wanted him. When his grandmother, Muddy’s grandmother, had suggested he seek out her grandson living in Texas near a town called by his own name, it seemed like God directing him to a fresh start.

  Del Rio meant from the river. Found as a baby on the banks of the river, he crossed the river in an attempt to be found anew. The fates were once again colluding against him. As darkness settled into the strange inlet, he felt more lost than ever.

  Then, just as suddenly as Muddy had fallen silent, Nena pierced the night air with song. In response to Muddy’s story she sang of a hero of the Kickapoo people—a hero that surrendered her life in the name of freedom.

 
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