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I was a revolutionary, p.5

I Was a Revolutionary, page 5


I Was a Revolutionary

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  “How long you pray for the white man to turn his heart?” Dulcet said. “Long enough your knees broke?” They weren’t leaving because of God, he said; they were leaving because a black man couldn’t get a fair shake in the South, and to illustrate his point he told a story of how before the election he’d worked to get blacks to turn out for the Republicans. “Guess word got around,” Dulcet said, “and one night we get some visitors at our home. Bulldozers, threatening to make a good nigger out of me if I don’t quit talking about the election. And course I don’t, so they come back and set my house on fire.” He looked hard at CK. “Burned it to the ground. My home. That’s what this about. That’s why we leaving.”

  CK reached to place a hand on Dulcet’s shoulder—“I’m sorry, friend”—but Dulcet stormed off in a huff, shaking his head at the bitter memory, and his return later that evening to supper with CK and Mil seemed to seal an unspoken agreement not to discuss the matter any further. Theirs was an argument that could not be resolved, CK knew. It could only be reconciled in light of their common end: getting to Kansas was what mattered. Still, it gave CK pause, not doubt but confusion: How could anyone ignore God’s hand in this miracle of common struggle and purpose? They were alive, together, out of Mississippi, on their way to a better life.

  Which was not to say CK didn’t welcome information that steadied his belief. All that waiting in the church had turned him into quite the gossip, always asking after the latest news. One evening on his way back to the church after having spent the day sweeping out stables, he bumped into that newspaperman again. CK recognized him immediately in that same gray suit. It had been two weeks since the day they arrived and the man didn’t seem to remember him. CK introduced himself, asking if he’d heard anything new.

  “John Barns,” the man said, shaking CK’s hand. “Mayor’s put a stop on boats carrying coloreds to the city.”

  “Any talk about steamers leaving for Kansas?”

  “Talk of steamers all right,” he said. “But not to Kansas. Steamers back south, is the rumor. Townsfolk here are fed up, and planters in the South are sending labor agents to bring coloreds back to the plantations.”

  “Heard talk of that,” CK said, kicking idly at a small rock near his boot.

  “Free passage back, they’re saying.”

  “Don’t think many will take up that offer.”

  “You know something I don’t?”

  CK smiled. “Why we wanna go back to Egypt when we done made it out alive?”

  John shook his head, a look of bemused confusion. “Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry for you people.”

  “Don’t need either from you,” CK said, his voice sharpening in a sudden flash of anger, which John seemed not to register.

  “What can you tell me about the church where you’re staying? What’s it like in there?”

  “I could tell you everything.”

  “Go on, then.”

  CK looked at the ground, coughed into one hand, and held out the other, until John removed a few coins from the small pocket of his vest and dropped them onto his palm.

  CK said, “Obliged,” and proceeded to describe what he and his family had experienced the last few weeks in the basement of the old church. Or selectively describe, rather. CK painted a pretty picture for John, people cooperating and helping one another, which had been true when they arrived, but lately with tensions rising there had been a lot of arguments, a few that had turned into fights even. He mentioned none of that now. He told him of his friend Dulcet, who played a mean fife that he carried in his coat pocket, entertaining the children with melody and song. As CK spoke, John wrote quickly on his small book of papers. When CK finished, he looked over at John’s hurried hand. It looked like a bunch of chicken scratch, mysterious in its illegibility.

  “What was it you did back in Mississippi, anyway? You preach?” asked John.

  “Nah, ain’t much for speaking the Word,” CK said, “but I hear it in my head all right.” He told him that, like most in Bolivar County, he’d farmed.

  “Good profession,” said John.

  “Difficult where I come from,” CK said. “Sharecrop, tenant-farm.” He told of how the landowners charged high rents and drew up contracts that made sure they kept the profits when cotton prices were high and the renters took on the debt when they were low, making it impossible to get out of the contract, unless you wanted to go to jail. John wrote none of this down, just listened as he looked out at the water, and when CK finished he said nothing. The two stood silently as the boats rocked calmly in the water, going nowhere. CK enjoyed talking in the warm evening.

  Not ready to return to the church yet, he pointed at the newspaper under John’s arm and asked, “How you learn that?”

  “My daddy wrote for the papers,” John said. “Guess I got it in the blood.” He smiled, and as if wanting to show off his latest work he unfolded the paper and held it out between the two of them. The headline across the top read “DARKIES DUPED BY FALSE PROMISES!” and John folded it up again.

  “What that say?” CK asked, smiling.

  John hemmed.

  “Just fooling,” CK said. “I know what it say.”

  Again John said nothing.

  “You come find me when you ready to write about why we really on this river,” CK said and left.

  When the boats finally began to leave for Kansas, first they carried the exodusters who could pay, and only then did the relief board raise enough money from private donors to transport those without fare. It was early one morning that CK woke to Dulcet tugging on his arm.

  “CK, they here,” he said.

  CK struggled into wakefulness, shaking his head, rubbing at his eyes.

  “The steamers,” Dulcet said. “They leaving for Kansas soon.”

  “What? How you know?”

  “Saw a man outside running through the street. Asked where he was going. Said he, ‘The boats.’ Said I, ‘What boats?’ Said he, ‘Kansas.’ Thought he was lying, so I said, ‘How you know?’ Pushed me, said, ‘Get out the way. They filling up and not about to wait a minute longer.’ So you know what I do? I goes and gets us three vouchers for passage. Now what you say to that, CK?”

  Dulcet slapped him on the shoulder with the vouchers, smiling, proud of himself.

  “Time is it?” CK said.

  “Before dawn yet. What you wondering after time for? I’m telling you we need to go. We leave for Kansas today.”

  “What you doing in the street before dawn?” CK said.

  People were rousing from sleep around them.

  “You want to stay, fine,” Dulcet said. “Me, I gon catch that boat.”

  Talmen and Rawl gathered up all the dried manure they could find, trying to keep as much of that prairie coal on hand so the fire stayed stoked. Eugenia and Jesse Mae took turns holding little Isaiah close, hoping the warmth of the dugout would sweat the cold from his lungs. Folks came bringing what food they could manage, to ask what could be done, but there was little to do beyond praying for the child.

  Back in Kentucky they’d lost three children before their second birthdays, so Talmen was no stranger to death. Sometimes he felt as if it followed him, a constant specter. Death, stay away, he told the shadowy haunt. Get behind me, Death. Talmen needed the boy to survive. Born together, his son and the town seemed connected, their fates intertwined, and in the same way the town needed to survive through difficulty so too did the boy. Talmen tried to stay with Eugenia, but she said the best thing he could do was to make sure the wheat crop delivered on time. So during the days, Talmen and Rawl tended to plowing and sowing the wheat, trying to do the impossible: to drive away thoughts of the sick child, to keep their hands and minds on the plow as it burst through the earth and scattered the loose layers of topsoil.

  The only time they took Isaiah out of the dugout all week was to go to a meeting so the sick child could receive his blessings. There were three churches in town, one African Methodist Episcopa
l and two Baptist, all of which met in dugouts except their own Mount Olive, which had recently built a sod house that sat fifty. As they took their seats in church, a neighbor in their pew, Mrs. Baldwin, leaned over and whispered to be sure to come to her place afterward. The Baldwins’ large stone house hosted the after-church potluck that had become a weekly tradition. These were crowded affairs with people filling the house so far to excess that oftentimes the gathering extended out the front door to the porch and into the yard. For Talmen the kindness of the gesture was always tarnished by its reminder that most everyone else was still living in the ground. He didn’t much care for Thomas Baldwin anyway, a loudmouthed man full of brag, who thought his money turned conjecture into fact. Talmen usually preferred to go straight home after church, but then again, Eugenia and Jesse Mae had been cooped up inside the dugout all week with Isaiah, and his and Rawl’s only reprieve was long days in the field.

  “Can’t we just stay a bit?” said Jesse Mae, who was friends with the Baldwins’ youngest daughter, Mercy.

  “Might be good for the boy, some fresh air,” added Rawl.

  Eugenia looked at Talmen, awaiting his verdict. They were all itching to escape that dugout, Talmen included.

  And so they went to the stone house and said grace before victuals and sang a few hymns on a well-tuned piano Mercy had just about mastered. Afterward, people sipped coffee and milled around, catching up on farming and family. Talmen had to admit, it felt good to have a nice meal and spend a few hours outside the oppressive dugout. He wasn’t much for talking, so he relieved Isaiah from Eugenia’s arms and carried him to the kitchen, keeping his boy close to the stove, an unpopular spot in the April warmth that left him eavesdropping on conversations in the other room and trading an occasional word or two with someone sneaking back for seconds or thirds.

  Beyond the usual pleasantries of planting and the weather, most of the talk that night was about the exodusters. A few months back, a group of fifty had arrived in Nicodemus from Mississippi, and they’d been welcomed. However, no one knew then that their arrival presaged the current deluge of emigrants coming north, this spectacle that the papers covered in such detail, and now folks in Nicodemus were none too pleased to be associated with that desperate rabble, especially given how difficult it had made business with their white neighbors. It was true. Talmen had seen them grow even stingier since his last visit with Mr. Ryer. Construction on the schoolhouse had all but halted until they could find a mill willing to trade for more lumber. But listening to Baldwin rail against the refugees—with a strength of voice aroused by being in the comfort of his own home—Talmen doubted how different their own situations had been. They hadn’t been driven from their homes, of course, but hadn’t the settlers of Nicodemus relied on charity—from the Osage Indians, from kindly whites and sympathetic blacks in near and distant towns—to get them on their feet, to give the town even the possibility to succeed? But men like Baldwin could afford to have short memories. The following week, in response to the stories of exodusters burdening towns and services throughout the state, Baldwin would forward a vote at the town meeting, calling for the end of all appeals for outside help, which would pass overwhelmingly. From then on, Nicodemus would survive or perish by her own hand.

  Talmen grew tired of the debate, and he and Eugenia and their children left soon after to get Isaiah home for an early bed. But that night Isaiah’s breathing worsened and Talmen cursed himself for having taken the child from the dugout. He felt so helpless, watching his son shiver in Eugenia’s arms as they waited on Dr. Newth, knowing as he did a father’s sad truths of love and death.

  They arrived in Wyandotte County aboard the E. H. Durfee on April 14, a date CK would never forget, for that was the day they finally set foot in Kansas. The excitement built as they neared the wharf and the steamer’s great paddles slowed, its tall stacks puffing their final plumes of smoke into the overcast sky. A light rain had begun. People gathered their families and pushed to the railings to see what free soil looked like. There was crying and then singing as they made their way down the gangplank: “Oh, Kansas! Oh, sweet Kansas!”

  Across the water, bustling on the Missouri side of the river, lay Kansas City, and Dulcet stuck his thumbs under his armpits and shook his fingers wildly, saying so long to Missouri and the South, drawing a big round of laughter. There on the waterfront others gathered round, embracing in the rain. Soon everyone, religious or otherwise, was holding hands and kneeling. “It’s raining on us now,” a loud, ministerial voice called out, “but today that’s water from the good Lord given to a free people.”

  “We made it,” Mil said, holding the swaddled Rachel in her arms.

  “Not yet,” CK said. “Nicodemus is my beacon. Nicodemus is where I’ll lay my head.”

  In anticipation of the exodusters’ arrival a relief board had been formed and word was Governor St. John himself was pledging help for the refugees. Till then it was more waiting, and so it was again that they huddled into the crowded confines of a church, this time African Methodist, and bided their time. Strange that you could arrive in Kansas—the very idea of which meant change, a new life—and still be doing the same thing. CK chuckled to himself, musing that first evening as he sat with others around a stove, watching the coffeepots start to boil. Members from the relief board came to visit in the following days with plans to ship refugees to various towns throughout the state so that no single location bore the burden of taking on thousands of so destitute a people. Some took trains to Lawrence and Topeka, others to Hodgeman County. CK, Mil, and Dulcet waited for word on passage to Nicodemus.

  The warm weather filled up the church with the stench of sweating bodies and soiled clothing, so they took to sleeping outside, underneath the raised Wyandotte train depot. Word finally came in early May that there would be no direct passage to Nicodemus—the relief board wouldn’t send migrants to a place so newly established and distant that they hadn’t had a chance to inspect the conditions. That night CK, Mil, and Dulcet conferred about their options under the train depot.

  “Figure we can work some and come up with the fare for passage ourselves. Might take a little while,” CK said. “You don’t have to come, Dulcet. You didn’t sign on for no Nicodemus. You can settle yourself anywhere. Bring your family up once you got a place.” Dulcet considered this as Mil nursed Rachel, her back to them, nodding at her husband’s words.

  “You all kin to me now,” he said. “Course I coming with.”

  “All right, then,” CK said with a force that betrayed the relief he felt that his friend would join them.

  During the days, Mil would rest in the depot’s shade with Rachel, listening to the footsteps of expectant travelers scuttling above them every time a train rumbled into town, and CK and Dulcet would set out early in the morning to look for work. CK had some luck at a nearby farm, and Dulcet would try his hand across the water in Kansas City, and they would come back at night tired, crawling under the train depot for supper. Sometimes Dulcet would regale them with stories of the things he’d seen that day in the city, and other times he’d tell them about his family, missing them so. Often he’d blow on his cane late into the night, a dirge or a dance, as his mood dictated. While Mil brought food from the fire, CK and Dulcet would pool their earnings, placing the coins inside the leaves of CK’s Bible.

  “Tell me about Nicodemus,” Dulcet said one night after dinner. He lay back and stretched out, folding his arms behind his head. The smoke from the dying fire snaked lazily in the darkening night. CK turned to Dulcet, tucking his legs under himself.

  “I’ll tell you bout Nicodemus,” CK said, raising his hands. “It’s a colored town, course you know. Started a short while ago by folk from Kentuck.”

  “That’s fine and good, but is there work?”

  “Plenty that.”

  “Worked for a colored man for a spell,” said Dulcet. “Had a plantation outside Holly Springs. Weren’t much different than working for the white man.”

/>   “Not this,” CK said, sitting up so that he was kneeling now. Mil had set Rachel to bed and was clearing the plates, running river water over them before drying and placing them in the pack. “Every man has a home and a farm to hisself,” said CK. “No landlords, no bosses.”

  “Run by us?”

  “It’s the truth,” he said. “You work your fields for yourself.”

  “That don’t sound half bad.”

  “Half bad?” CK said, tossing a piece of tinder at his friend. “You hear what I say, Dulcet? You gon have a home. Your own farm. To bring your family back to.”

  “Now you’re talking,” Dulcet said, bracing himself on his elbows. “And we gon be neighbors?”

  “Right next door,” CK said. “We supper together each—”

  “What you know about Nicodemus?” Mil said as she took a seat by the fire. “You never been.”

  It was true; beyond his vision he knew little else but what he’d seen on the handbill he still carried in his pocket.

  “I seen it,” CK said. “Through my God’s eye. He show me.”

  Mil looked away.

  Dulcet lay back down, laughing a single, satisfied laugh. “I gotta give it you, CK,” he said. “You ain’t know nothing about this town and you act like you fit to be mayor.” He laughed again, but quieted quickly. After a moment’s pause, he asked, “Tell me what else about Nicodemus.”

  CK moved his hand slowly before him as if making a careful brushstroke: “It’s a beauty like never you saw.” Dulcet was starting to believe, he could tell.

  “What else?”

  “Well, now, you listen,” CK began and told Dulcet of the song about Nicodemus, the slave who prophesied freedom and spoke that truth to others. They talked a long time that night, and their excitement carried them out of bed early in the predawn and for several days after, anxious as they were to raise enough money for train fare. They continued to do so until the morning CK woke to find Dulcet gone. He put on his shoes and hustled through town, checking saloons he was too timid to enter and other debauched places where one could lose money so quickly. Nothing. Later CK returned to the depot, ducking under the platform, and met Mil’s eyes. Neither said a word. She was holding the Bible and opened the cover. The money was gone. Inside lay the fife. It was light out now, and in the spot of dirt where Dulcet had lain, CK noticed something: a one-word apology, written in the shaky script of a finger dragged through dirt.

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