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I was a revolutionary, p.6

I Was a Revolutionary, page 6


I Was a Revolutionary

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  The axe had been his father’s, but Talmen borrowed the wagon from a neighbor. With Rawl driving, they set out, and when he asked where they were headed, Talmen told him to keep on, saying only, “Outside town a ways.”

  When they arrived at the oak grove, Talmen dismounted and stood silently a moment, taking in the sight of those tall hardwoods. “How many you figure we need?” said Rawl.

  Talmen walked toward a tree, measured it up, and swung quickly, lodging the axe deep in the wood. “Just one.” Talmen spoke softly.

  “Why ain’t we taking more? Sure could use it.”

  “Now move the wagon over yonder some. No telling which way this gon fall,” said Talmen, taking another swing. “When it do, you head that horse, hear? Don’t let him spook.”

  “But why ain’t we take more?”

  “Son, I need you to hush now.”

  “Yes, sir,” he said.

  Rawl was full of questions tonight. Nervous, Talmen figured. Maybe he sensed what his father was up to, that this was no unclaimed spot of land, and that the owner of the claim was white, and, further, that the owner was Ryer, a man who’d been nothing but pretty good to Talmen. And here he was stealing from him so brazenly. Talmen looked over at the house, certain any moment light from a kerosene lamp would illuminate a window. I’ll take what I need, he imagined telling Ryer as he labored to bring down the tree, whether you trade or not. You see what you done to me. Perhaps he would tell Rawl later, try and explain the things a desperate man will do, but for now he didn’t care to account for himself. Right now he just needed silence, a demand Rawl met, so that the only sound that passed between them was the hollow crack of the axe. When the oak fell, Talmen chopped half of it into smaller lengths that could be loaded into the wagon and left the other half where it lay.

  “But what about—” said Rawl, looking at the abandoned portion.

  “Leave it be.” Talmen placed his axe in the bed of the wagon and climbed into the cab. “Let’s go.”

  That night, while everyone was asleep in the dugout, Talmen sat outside in the warm early-summer night, stripping bark. He worked late, using the axe and saw to secure enough wood to fashion the top, bottom, and sides that would be needed. It was green, unseasoned wood, but it would have to do. No time for a visit to the mill that might have no time for him. All those years of watching and helping his father build houses, fences, and floors, but never once something so small. He had to trust his eyeballed measurements to be correct. He sat alone on a stool in the starlight and hum of cicadae, his hands resting on the rough denim of his overalls. He wasn’t finished, but it was quiet now, and the hammer-and-nails work he had left would wake his family. He would finish in the morning, but for now he just sat there a long time thinking, listening, being still.

  Word later came that the mayor of Leavenworth himself had climbed aboard the Joe Kinney to stuff a wad of bills in the captain’s hand, begging him not to leave any more of these wretched people in his town. “Take them on to Atchison, please,” the mayor was rumored to have entreated. Of course CK and Mil knew nothing of it at the time, lodged as they were with the others in the hull of the towing barge. They’d pieced it together only later, when they exited the steamer and walked the banks of the Missouri, met by the cold stares of Atchison townsfolk who were not pleased to see Leavenworth’s refuse on their shores.

  “Morning, folks,” CK said, tipping his hat to the crowd as he and the others carried what was left of their belongings from the steamer.

  “Go on back where you come from, why don’t you,” a voice called out.

  CK smiled pleasantly, a calculated gesture of obliviousness that he’d often used to deflect hostility. “Fine day here in Leavenworth,” he said, as he helped an old woman struggling to carry an armful of blankets from the ship.

  “Ain’t Leavenworth ground you standing on, nigger,” the voice in the crowd called again. “You’s in Atchison here. They don’t want you, and us neither.”

  “Atchison?” CK said, and slowly the pieces started coming together.

  Earlier that morning, after Dulcet disappeared with their money, Mil had fumed, cursing his name.

  “I don’t understand,” CK said in a monotone daze. How could a friend who called himself family just up and disappear from your life? Leave you in such a bad spot?

  “That darn fool is drinking away our money and you know it.”

  “No, ma’am,” CK said. “He went back for his kin, I’m sure it.”

  “Believe what you will,” she said. “Fact is, that money’s gone.”

  “He’ll meet us in Nicodemus,” he said, but his words failed to convince even himself.

  “How we gon get to Nicodemus now?”

  She was right, and as he thought about that money—nearly enough to secure rail tickets—CK’s befuddlement dissipated, stoking a slow-burning resentment he struggled neither to voice nor to dwell upon, if only for Mil’s sake. Instead he’d made like such a thing could just be shrugged off, saying with new resolution: “We move on.” Having little desire to stay in a place that now seemed haunted by Dulcet’s betrayal, CK went to the relief board and looked into their options. One of the last free-passage boats, the Joe Kinney, was set to leave for Leavenworth later that very morning, and a man on the board said it was a town where one could find steady work. And so he boarded the boat with his family and a new optimism that was almost convincing until now, when they’d arrived in a town that hadn’t been their destination.

  Those first few days in Atchison were long and without prospect. Just summer heat and hunger. Here there were no relief boards or wealthy donors, and local blacks seemed consumed by a growing indifference to the boatloads of needy refugees who so regularly appeared. CK and Mil had arrived with nearly three hundred others, and many were in a bad way. The hard travel had taken its toll in pneumonia and measles, and their clothes had become little more than rags. There was worry they might even carry yellow fever, so the local authorities concerned themselves with quarantine followed by expulsion, arranging for ships and trains to take the indigents elsewhere. They’d been so overrun with exodusters the last month, they were losing all patience and goodwill. This was not a matter of skin color, the mayor said repeatedly. This was a matter of economics, and Atchison simply couldn’t afford to keep giving away food and the like. So it was back to the basement of another crowded church, hoping the hostility would fade, and eventually, as more and more people were transferred, it did, dissolving into mean disregard. CK and Mil took turns ministering to the sick and elderly, praying, listening as they spoke. “Ain’t no Kansas I heard about,” said a bone-thin older man, too sick to travel, one night as he lay on his pallet by the fire. CK sat beside him, Bible open on his lap. “Jayhawkers and John the Brown ain’t even a memory. ‘Eden on the Prairie’ ain’t even a dream no more.” CK raised a tin cup to the man’s lips but he shook it off. He was in pain, knew he would soon die, and said he wasn’t scared. O Death, be kind to him, thought CK. He’d seen men unafraid of the end and he hoped he could muster the same resolve when Death came for him. But while that would not be the end, lying in the arms of his Savior was something he wasn’t yet ready to court.

  While most accepted transportation back to Wyandotte or Topeka, CK looked into passage to Nicodemus. The steamer to Atchison had brought them north of Wyandotte but no farther west, leaving them three hundred miles from their destination. A railway would suffice but was costly. He thought of Dulcet, imagined him in a bar, smiling over a bottle of brown liquor, as he captivated others with stories of his journey out of the South. CK carried on an imagined conversation with him as, again, he looked for work. Maybe now Dulcet would stop his scoffing and understand how hard it was to live in a godly way. The lost company of his friend, however, paled now beside the loss of that money. In these times the only salve for CK was Nicodemus. When he felt that wrath come upon him, he’d start to sing “Wake Nicodemus,” but now the song was less affirmation of his vision than a g
uard against succumbing to disillusioned anger.

  Defying CK, Mil sought work as well, determined as she was to get out of Atchison. She took up washing and laundering linens for a few families, carrying out the tasks with Rachel on her hip or at her feet. After a few days, CK found steady work in a grain elevator from a man named Roberts, who lived outside of town. Roberts worked right alongside his hired men, putting in a full day, too. He seemed to like CK, and one day as they descended the steps of that towering elevator, along with another man Roberts referred to as “Germany,” he offered to let CK stay on as long as he wanted. “You’re the hard kind of worker I could use around here,” he said. “Ain’t that right, Germany? We could use us another two, three like CK.”

  “They take our jobs,” Germany said, his voice heavy with the accent of his home. They were the first words CK had heard him speak beyond the uh-huh grunting that shoveling grain necessitated. He was older than CK, bespectacled, and did everything with an air of agitation, whether hauling heavy grain sacks into storage or wiping a smudge from the lens of his glasses with a handkerchief from his back pocket. He repeated himself, Germany did, and set out in the opposite direction, before turning back to say he would see Roberts tomorrow morning, nodding curtly.

  This made Roberts laugh. “Don’t pay him no mind. He thinks he’s white, is all.” He took a rag from his denim trousers and dabbed at his forehead, repeating his offer to CK. “Black, white, don’t much matter to me, so long as you carry your weight.” CK thanked him, but remained resolute on leaving for Nicodemus after he’d raised enough money for train fare. “Whatever suits you,” Roberts said, and they continued on in the direction of his farmhouse. “That was the problem with the others, you know,” he said a few seconds later. “No workers. Most of your bunch seemed content to wait on charity.”

  “Plenty willing to work,” said CK, feeling comfortable enough with Roberts to speak openly. “But some are sick, need care.”

  “Whatever they are, they ain’t working.”

  Later CK wanted to explain what he knew Roberts could never understand: what it felt like to make this journey together, up from where they came from. To suffer sickness and hunger, waiting on boats, penniless, packed into different churches, always being separated or sent to another town. Whether you’d ever spoke a word to them or not, the ones who’d made it this far were as much family as your true-blood kin. But those words wouldn’t come to him in the moment. All he could say was: “Well, we here now.”

  “Yeah”—Roberts smiled, his face mottled from the long day—“can’t argue that.”

  “And now they sending us to every town under a Kansas sky.”

  “Except the one you want.”

  “Yes, sir,” CK said. “Nicodemus.”

  “Ah, Nicodemus.”

  It was Roberts who set CK on the idea of hitching a ride on a supply wagon headed west. “Take a little longer, but cheaper than waiting on that rail line,” he said. “Get you closer, too.” Roberts went so far as to make inquiries, and toward the end of May, CK and Mil had raised enough to buy passage with a husband-and-wife freighter team whose name CK never troubled himself to learn.

  “Can take you as far as Bull City,” the husband said. “Got a delivery there, but then we head south, on to Hays. That’ll put you close, though. You can catch another freighter from there. Probably walk it even. Ain’t but some miles.”

  “Might could, yes sir,” CK said, taking the money from his pocket and handing it to the man. “Much obliged.”

  They set out from the livery stables in the early morning, CK and Mil cramped in the back of the covered wagon with Rachel, while the husband and wife sat side by side in the cab, driving the team of horses. During the long bumpy days CK played with Rachel, dandling the wide-eyed child—so bewildered by the newness of everything—on his knee as he told tales about what lay ahead in Nicodemus. Sometimes Rachel would coo in response, and he’d say, “I’m telling the truth, my little queen—I swear on it,” which sometimes elicited a laugh from Mil in that way CK loved to hear. Tired though they were, deliverance was near.

  In the evenings the husband would lead the horses to the trough of whatever town they were passing through and CK would start the fire, while Mil and the wife fixed supper. They ate quietly, though sometimes the white couple indulged CK’s joviality, grinning at a joke or story, as if despite themselves. At night CK and Mil removed their belongings to make room for the couple to sleep and would spread their dusty blanket on the ground beneath the wagon, lying down in the warm night with Rachel soughing restlessly between them.

  There was a small one-foot rent in the tarpaulin covering that had been rigged to shelter the back of the wagon from which CK liked to look out at the passing land, baffled by the way the landscape of Kansas seemed to change right before his eyes. The way the open prairie went from rolling and tall-grassed in the east to flat and short-grassed the farther west they went along those desolate high plains. Strange that a place was actually made up of so many different kinds of places. Wasn’t so different from Mississippi when he thought of it, though. He’d rarely left Bolivar County but heard tell of the hill country up north, the sandy gulf to the south, the riverboating east, and the tall piney woods between. And of course there was the burnt-black soil of his own Delta, that gorgeous floodplain between the Yazoo and Mighty Miss. He imagined the underwater humidity of syrupy summer days, the clouds of cotton dotting the horizon in all directions interrupted only by the occasional stand of pecan trees or bald cypress. When he felt the pangs of homesickness, CK would sit and stare for long stretches, humming to himself.

  ’Twas a long weary night,

  we were almost in fear,

  that the future was more than Nicodemus knew.

  ’Twas a long weary night,

  but the morning is near,

  and the words of our prophet are true.

  On the day before they arrived in Bull City, their wagon came upon a long train of Indians, maybe a hundred or so, making their way across the plains. There were a handful of white men in blue tunics on horses directing the scattered group, as if herding cattle.

  “Something’s wrong with Rachel,” Mil said to CK, whose back was turned as he looked out the small window at the strange scene.

  “Look at this, would you,” he said as he chewed on wild garlic leaves to quench his thirst. He’d seen some Choctaws in and around Bolivar County, but these folks were different, and there was something of the spectacle about them now. They were barely clothed—next to naked, by God—with expressionless faces like beaten leather. A wretched lot, if ever CK had seen one. They walked slowly, in no hurry, it seemed, to arrive at their destination.

  “You hear what I say, CK?”

  Still he didn’t turn, just reached a hand back to shake Mil’s leg. The noisome smell of garlic filled the hot wagon and she wafted a piqued hand as she joined him to see what he was fussing about.

  She looked on, punctuating her silence with a little tthit click in her mouth.

  “Look at them, would you,” he said. “Ain’t they terrible-looking as anything you ever saw? Where you spose them redmen going?”

  “Wherever they being put,” Mil said, returning to her spot wedged up against a few large sacks of cornmeal. CK tried to imagine where that might be. Where would you go when forced from your home, not knowing your destination? Would you wander forever? “Baby’s hot,” Mil said, hand to Rachel’s head. “I been trying to tell you.” CK said nothing, still watching as their wagon left the dismal procession behind, thankful his family knew where their journey would end.

  He moved close to his wife, raising two fingers to his daughter’s head. “Fever? You sure?” he said skeptically. He took Rachel in his arms.

  “You think a mama don’t know?”

  He rocked the child gently, inspecting her. He didn’t realize he was smiling until it had eased from his face. He could feel the warmth inside his daughter. Couldn’t be, he thought. Not afte
r what they’d been through. No. He passed Rachel back to Mil. “She feel fine to me,” he said.

  One of the first ordinances they’d come to decide as a community was to outlaw liquor in Nicodemus. Talmen had never been one for more than the occasional drink, but he craved the tang of that Kentucky corn liquor and was glad he’d snuck a bottle in his clothes truck. He didn’t care who knew, either. Damned if anyone was going to say he weren’t allowed a drink after losing Isaiah. The night of the funeral, so besot, he walked through town with the bottle in hand. He made his way to the unfinished schoolhouse and went inside. There was no door and the floorboards were warping, a combination of rain-soak and the inferior lumber they’d had to use. There were still some tools lying around, as if any day they might be able to go back to work when the neighboring towns eased up their embargo. He set a hand on the sawhorse, running a finger along the smooth wood. He took a big slug of whiskey, and stared up at the sky through the unfinished roof. Those stars. Slowly he moved to the doorway and leaned against the frame, looking out into the distance. The stone house. Baldwin. It was the only home you could see from there if you didn’t know that all around it, barely noticeable below ground, were cramped dugouts full of families. He imagined taking his hammer to every corner of that stone house. He indulged the vision for some time, taking occasional pulls from the bottle as he watched himself chipping away at it until the home was no more than a pile of chalky limestone. His sadness had become anger, and soon that anger tired him. He lowered himself to the floor and fell asleep right there in the door frame, the same spot where Rawl would find him the next morning after Eugenia sent him out to search for his father. She wasn’t one bit happy when they returned home, Talmen propped up by Rawl, sweating his drink. She took the bottle and poured out the last of the whiskey right then, giving him the meanest eye she could muster.

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