Mississippi jack, p.40
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       Mississippi Jack, p.40

           L. A. Meyer
 

  "Hey, Missy, there's a road back here!" says Solomon, out of my sight to the right. "And there's—Missy, run! Get back to the boat!"

  "Make a move and yer one dead nigra!"

  Oh no!

  I drop my load of kindling and charge off toward Solly, but I don't get ten feet before a hand comes across my mouth and my arms are pinned to my side. Desperately I kick and squirm but to no avail, I am held fast and forced to do nothing but listen as disaster falls upon us.

  I don't hear nothin' from Solly so I guess they've got guns pointin' at him, but I do hear somethin' from the direction of the Belle, somethin' that chills me to the core.

  "Hands in the air, all of you! Anyone goes for a gun, I kill this here girl!"

  "Get your hands off her, you bastard!" Jim's voice! They must have pulled Clementine off the boat and now have a pistol to her head!

  "Shut up, boy! Absalom, git the nigress!"

  "Got her, Pap! Git down there, you!"

  "Stop! You can't—"

  A shot rings out and then a scream.

  "Can't, can't I? Shadrach, Moab, you keep these ones covered while we truss up the three we're taking. You there! Cast this boat off and take it to the middle of the river or we'll blow her brains out. Do it now!"

  "What possible use do you have for the white girl?" That's Higgins...

  "Oh, we got a use for her all right, big man, bein' she's the leader of yer gang of low-down slave stealers. A real good use."

  There is a thrashing of the bushes and then they are parted and my horrified eyes behold the grinning face of one of the Beam boys. He holds a length of rope.

  "Turn the little nigra-lover around, Mordecai, so's I kin tie her hands."

  I'm roughly spun around, and as my wrists are crossed and bound, the grimy hand is taken from my mouth and I scream out, "Higgins! Jim! Wait for Lightfoot!" My mind may be shocked, but it's still working. "Ow!"

  I'm backhanded hard across the face and then a rope is shoved between my teeth and tied at the back of my head. "That'll keep her quiet, Ezekiel," says the one named Mordecai.

  Ezekiel turns me again to look me in the eye. "Got yer little Abolitionist ass now, don't we? And we got it good. Hee-hee, oh, yeah."

  They push me back through the bushes where there waits an open buckboard hitched to two mules. Solomon slumps in the back, his head shaking as if he was slowly returning to consciousness. They must have hit him pretty hard, the bastards. There are strong ropes wrapped all about him. Next to him is Chloe, her face a mask of complete horror. I'm thrown into the wagon and made to lie down behind the seat. My ankles are tied together.

  Pap Beam comes out of the woods, climbs up, and sits down. He grabs the reins and shouts, "Moab! Are they out in the river?"

  "Yeah, they are, Pap! 'Bout in the middle!"

  "Good! Throw the girl in the water and let's go!"

  There is a shriek and a splash and then the two men come charging out of the woods, and all mount their horses.

  Solomon looks at Chloe and says, "This here's a free Colored girl. You should be lettin' her go, Suh."

  Pap Beam looks back at him. "If that don't beat all, a nigra tellin' Hezekiah Beam what he should or shouldn't do. What's this world comin' to?" And with that he picks up the buggy whip from its holder and swings it, catching Solomon across the back with it. Solly stiffens and groans. "You say another word, boy, and the black bitch gets the next one, y'hear? Good. All right, let's go, boys." He slaps the reins on the backs of the mules and we move off.

  "What we gonna do, Pap?" asks one of the riders.

  "Wal, Shadrach, we're gonna get back to the farm, lock up the two nigras, and then as soon as we can dig a grave, we're gonna hang the Abolitionist whore from the sweet gum tree."

  We rumble along for about a half hour, then pull up next to a field. "Let's take down those rails, boys, and cross over here, so that in case anyone follows us, they'll think we went straight along the road."

  "Good thinkin', Pap."

  Think, dammit! You've got to think of something or else you're dead! If only I could leave something here as a marker for Lightfoot, but I can't, I can't. Oh, Lord!

  "Say, Pappy, kin we have some fun with her, afore we hangs her?" Ezekiel Beam giggles. "You know..."

  "You would sully the purity of your body by cleaving unto this Jezebel, this whore of Babylon, Ezekiel? You saw yourself how she tore off her dress and exposed herself to inflame the lusts of men, how she danced like wicked Salome, herself! Nay!" roars the old man. "Never, never in my house or on my land!"

  "Sorry I axed, Pap," says Ezekiel, smarting under the rebuff, but the crazy old man is not yet done.

  "Scripture says the Great God Jehovah gave us dominion over the beasts of the field, and the nigra is a beast of the fields and any damned Abolitionist who says any different is goin' against the Will of Almighty God and needs hangin' and that's what she's gonna git!"

  "Wal, Pap, nobody know the rules of Scripture like you do, that's for sure. Pity, though ... she ain't half bad-lookin'..."

  He may be a crazy, God-struck, and twisted man, but he has given me a ray of hope. It's a slim chance, but it's the only chance I got.

  We clatter ever onward.

  The buckboard pulls in to a farmyard early in the afternoon. Chloe and Solomon are dragged out and taken into a barn, where I am sure cruel shackles await them. Poor Chloe is stunned with grief—I found out on the way that Yancy Cantrell had been shot by Pap Beam as Yancy tried to prevent the abduction of his daughter. I am left in the wagon.

  The Beams dismount and tie up their horses, then two of them take up shovels and go to a bare spot of ground and begin to dig what might very well turn out to be my grave. Pap and the others go into the house that sits next to the barn. I don't see anyone else around—no wives, no children, just a few chickens pecking in the yard. I see a big, smooth-bark tree at the edge of the yard and a shiver runs up my spine—that can only be the sweet gum tree.

  The two digging Beams, Shadrach and Absalom, I think, labor at their grim task for a while, and when they are knee-deep into the dirt, Shadrach calls out, "Pap! Come out here! Is this deep enough?"

  Pap Beam comes out onto the porch of his house, his duster now shed, his gray beard resting on a dirty gray shirt over which a pair of suspenders lie, holding up his stained black trousers. He looks upon the work of his sons and shakes his head.

  "Nah, it should be about waist deep, else the hogs might root up her corpse."

  "Then, hell, Pap, git the other boys to help," whines Absalom, dusting off his hands, "I think I'm a-gettin' a blister."

  "Moab! Ezekiel! Mordecai! Git on out here!" His sons come out of the house, dressed exactly like their father. "You two spell Shadrach and Absalom. Moab, you pick her up and stretch her out there next to the hole and see if they got it long enough."

  Moab leans over the buckboard and picks me up and hauls me over to the edge of the pit and drops me hard on the ground. I try to speak around the rope, but all I can get out is a garbled mumble.

  "You'll git yer chance to say a few last words, slut, so just be quiet now," says Pap. He looks down, appraising the measurements. "Yeah, it's long enough. Just git it waist deep. Shadrach, you go set up the rope there on that limb, and then bring over a horse. We'll do it that way. And get them nigras out here to watch it—teach 'em a good lesson."

  "Yes, Pap."

  Another half hour later and the job is done. I am lifted up and the bonds are taken from my ankles. I struggle and try to wriggle and make a run for it, but I am held too tight. I am placed on the horse and the noose is put around my neck and drawn tight. I know that the rope goes up over that limb and then is brought down, wrapped around the trunk of the tree, and tightly knotted. The Beams gather in a circle about me.

  "All right, then, let Divine Justice be done," says Pap Beam. "Mordecai, take the rope from her mouth." The man pulls out a knife from his belt and reaches up and places the blade between my cheek and the rope gag an
d pulls back, cutting it clean. It falls from my mouth.

  "Any last words before you go to stand before the Great God Jehovah?" says Pap, his hand upraised, ready to slap the flank of the horse that sits beneath me.

  "I pleads my belly!" I gasp out.

  "What?" says Pap.

  "You may hang me for being an Abolitionist, for I fully confess that, but you cannot kill the innocent unborn child that lies within my womb, if you are, as you say, a man of God!"

  I puff out my belly and make it as hard as I can, ready to receive the hand I know is coming.

  "See if it's true, Pap," says Mordecai. "You musta felt Mama's belly, God rest her poor soul, when we was all in there."

  Pap Beam runs his hand up under my shirt and runs his hand over my stomach.

  "Her belly's round and tight," he reports, "but I can't tell for sure. Damn."

  "It's true, I swear," says I.

  "It's true," says Chloe from across the yard. "She bin gettin' sick and throwin' up ever' mornin' for a month now!" Oh, thank you, Chloe!

  "Damn, damn, and double damn!" sputters Pap. "Was it that nigra what put it there?" He points across at Solomon.

  "No, Suh, it was a fine southern gentleman, a man of high degree. It was Colonel William Howe of the Virginia Howes, who's sure to be the next guv'nor of the state, a false fine gentleman who left me alone to fend for myself and my poor baby to come!" I babble along for all I'm worth, hopin' to keep this horse under me for just a little while yet.

  "We could keep her till she has the baby and then hang her. Maybe have a little fun with her till then." Ezekiel giggles. "She could even clean up a bit around here. Hoe corn and pick cotton and such. But what does Scripture say, Pap?"

  "Scripture says we'd have to keep her alive till the child was off the tit. Scripture also says we should stone her for the adultery, but that don't solve the unborn-brat problem. Dammit all to Hell and back! Boys, I got to talk to God about this!" and he strides off into the woods at the edge of the farmstead.

  "Pap's gone to his prayin' place. You comfortable up there, girly?"

  The horse under me is gettin' skittish and is liable to solve this problem for everybody by runnin' off and leavin' me danglin' while Pap and his God argue the fine points of this thing. Nice horsie ... nice horsie...

  "Let's move this nag just a little bit forward," says Ezekiel. "Just a little bit. Hee-hee, look at her neck stretch, listen to her choke."

  Oh please, God, I can't breathe ... it hurts ... I can't...

  "Take her down and put her in the shed. The Great God Jehovah has spoken to me and shown me the way," says Pap Beam, coming out of the woods, his face all aglow with spiritual rapture.

  Oh, thank you, God!

  I am wrapped in my own rapture of thankfulness and relief as the hateful rope is taken from my neck and I am taken down and tossed into a rough woodshed. Very roughly am I thrown—they were probably trying to cause a miscarriage. I hit the earthen floor and hear a bolt being thrown.

  My hands still bound, I wriggle about the floor, searching desperately for some way out, but find none. Then, on the breeze that blows in through the cracks in the door, I smell a wood fire being started. Could they mean to burn me? I wonder with renewed dread.

  Then I hear the squawks of chickens being chased and then the thump of ax on chopping block and then I hear the squawks no more. Could it be that they are preparing dinner and have forgotten about me for the moment?

  Oh, no, that is not it at all.

  For then I breathe in the unmistakable smell of hot tar.

  Chapter 64

  The door of the shed is pulled open and I am dragged out by Ezekiel and Moab and taken back to the sweet gum tree, where the noose still dangles. The rest of the Beams stand there, waiting. Solomon and Chloe are off to the side, bound back-to-back to a post. The grave is still open.

  Have they decided to hang me after all? Oh please, God, no!

  "Be careful how you handle me, you're gonna hurt my baby!" I wail.

  "We ain't gonna hurt your baby none, heh-heh," chuckles Moab, "but we're sure gonna hurt you, girly. You git over here, now."

  I'm pulled till I'm under the noose and then I am stood up. Mordecai goes to where it's bound and lowers it till it hits the top of my head.

  "String her up," says Pap Beam.

  They are, they're really gonna do me! My knees tremble and my legs begin to give out, but the two Beams have their hands under my armpits, so they hold me up.

  "No, please don't!" I burst into tears as the rough rope of the noose brushes against my face. But instead of putting it around my neck, they untie my hands and stick my crossed wrists into it and pull it up tight. Mordecai goes back to the other end of the rope and pulls on it till my arms are stretched above me and I'm standing on my tiptoes.

  "Can I take off her clothes, Pap?" begs Ezekiel.

  "Just the shirt, son. I don't want you boys' innocent eyes sullied by gazin' upon the sex of a whore."

  Are they gonna whip me to death?

  Ezekiel puts his hand on the neckline of my shirt and yanks down hard, ripping it from me. Bits of my sleeves still remain and he tears them off as well. "There," he says. "Ah, yes, ain't that some fine?"

  "What are you gonna do to me? Please, I beg of you..."

  Pap Beam shows me his yellowed teeth in a grisly smile. "You love them nigras so much, we gonna make you just like 'em. We gonna make you a tar baby."

  "Hee-hee, good one, Pap."

  "Go git it, boy."

  Moab goes around the shed and comes back bearing a large bucket, which, when it is brought close enough for me, I see is filled with the tar I had smelled before. Hot tar. It ain't bubblin' but it still looks pretty warm.

  "Oh, how could you be so cruel to me? Oh why, oh why?" I blubber. "I ain't never done nothin' to you!"

  "You bin stealin' niggers and that's a capital crime round these parts," says Pap. "If'n you weren't with child, yer dead ass'd be hangin' from that limb right now. Do 'er, Moab."

  The handle of a brush sticks out of the tar bucket and Moab brings it out, dripping with tar. I try to swing out of the way, but I can't, I can't. "No, no, no, please," as he runs the brush from my shoulder to my stomach. "Yeeeeeooowww! No more! It's hot! Please, no more!"

  But my pleas fall on deaf, uncaring ears, and Moab keeps on painting me. When he's done covering my front, he goes around and does my back. "Lord, help me! Oh, you monsters, stop! Yeeeoooww!"

  Then I hear one of them say, "Hey, Pap, that belly looks pretty damn flat to me."

  My crazed mind is taken off my pain and jerked back to reality. I can't puff out my belly when I'm stretched out like this, I can't...

  "I do believe you are right, Ezekiel, and if that don't beat all," says Pap, and then he bursts out laughing. By the time the wretched Moab has tarred my once-white trousers, Pap trails off to a rueful chuckle. "Boys, boys, I reckon you just now saw how the Lord works His will. When I talked to Him before, He didn't come right out and tell me that she was lyin' about havin' a child in her womb, lyin' to save her wicked neck, no. He tells me to tar 'n' feather the strumpet and I does, and behold! I see that her belly's flat as a board! Oh, boys, the Lord works in mighty and mysterious and wonderful ways, Amen!"

  Moab is done doing the Lord's work on my pants and feet and then turns to my arms. There ain't no more screams left in me, just tears and sobbing.

  "Git 'er done, Moab. Lord tol' me to tar her, so we gotta do it first, 'fore we do anythin' else with her."

  "Yes, Pap," says Moab. He stands in front of me grinning. "My face is prolly the last thing yer evah gonna see on this here earth. Ain't that somethin'?" With that he upends the bucket over my head and the rest of the tar pours over my hair and face, and he finishes the job by running the brush down over my eyes, sealing them shut.

  I hang limp in the bonds, my mind numb. I am totally without hope now, knowing that the rope that binds my wrist will soon be around my neck yet again, and that will be it for
me. Good-bye, Jaimy, I loved you ... Good-bye to all my friends in this world. You always did your best for me, you did...

  "All right, git the feathers on 'er now," says Pap, and I suppose that is being done, but I can't feel the feathers, not through the tar. I am beyond caring. "Good. Now, Absalom, go loosen up the rope."

  In a moment I feel the rope give way and I crumple to the ground, and then the rope is taken from my hands and then...

  ...and then I hear a thud and then a scream, then..."Pap! I ... I got an arrow in my gut! Help me, Pap!"

  And then all is confusion, and in my case, blind confusion. There's a rattle of gunfire and more grunts and screams.

  "Git in the house, boys! Git the guns!"

  "God, it hurts, Pap! I think I'm gonna die! Don't leave me out here, Pap, don't..."

  I hear a sound like an ax splitting a melon and I know a tomahawk has ended Ezekiel Beam's concern over what must be Katy Deere's arrow and over his own miserable life, as well.

  I hear a Shawnee battle cry as well as some yeeee-haws that have to be coming from the Hawkes boys. Oh, my friends, my friends...

  "Solomon! Pick her up and get her back to the boat. Katy, show 'em the way," shouts Lightfoot. "We'll clean up here and meet you a little ways down the river! Go!" There's the sound of more shots, some now coming from the direction of the house. There's another scream of pain.

  I feel myself being lifted and held to Solomon's broad chest, and then my tortured mind gives out and I know nothing for a while.

  "Oh, my God, look what they've done to her! Tupelo, come help. Chloe, you'd best go down and see your father."

  "Is she still alive, Solly?"

  "I think so, Mr. Higgins."

  I prove that I am by pulling apart my tar-caked lips and commencing to bawl.

  "Thank God."

  "Oh, poor Jacky! I just can't bear to look!" wails Tupelo. "Those horrid men! Crow Jane, what can we do?"

  "The tar's still warm. Let's git her in the water, cool her off. When the tar gets cold, it'll git stiffer and we should be able to peel some of it off. Honeysuckle, run to the paint locker and git the turpentine. Clementine, go git some rags. Lots of 'em. Mr. Higgins, we'll git this stuff off her, but it'll take some time. Best find some shears, though, 'cause there won't be any savin' of her hair."

 

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