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I was a revolutionary, p.7

I Was a Revolutionary, page 7


I Was a Revolutionary

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  In the days that followed, Talmen didn’t do much of anything. When Rawl rose early to head out to the fields to prepare for the coming harvest, Talmen slept late and spent the long afternoon hours beneath a cottonwood not far from the banks of the Solomon, where they’d buried Isaiah. It hectored him, Death. It was cruel and it was unrelenting.

  After a few days Eugenia came upon Talmen sitting in the shade of the tree, staring a few yards away at the wooden cross he’d fashioned bearing his son’s name. She spoke, and when he didn’t answer, she lowered herself to take a seat beside him.

  “Tal,” she said, placing a hand on his leg. They’d hardly spoken twenty words since the funeral—not because of any anger or reproach, but because not speaking of it had been their way of carrying on in the past. But here he was, underneath the cottonwood tree. “What’s wrong that you have to sit up here all day?”

  “You know why, Genia.”

  “Your heart is heavy,” she said, rubbing her hand over the leg of his overalls.

  “I can’t leave it behind.”

  There was a long silence, and they both looked out at the water, a slight breeze passing over them. Last born, first to die, he thought. The awful imbalance of it all.

  “Isaiah, he gone, but you still here. Your family still here. We need you.” Talmen didn’t say anything. “And the wheat will be coming in soon and you know Rawl can’t do it all hisself.”

  “Eugenia,” he said.

  “Yes,” she said, and when he added nothing else, she spoke: “Your heart can sore and you can father. Don’t have to favor one to the other.”

  Talmen looked at the river, silent for a long moment, and then said, “Go on and leave me be a little longer.”

  “Okay, a little longer then,” Eugenia said, but she stayed where she was until Talmen finally moved to stand, giving one hard exhalation, and together they made their way back to the dugout.

  The freighter team let them off at the limits of Bull City, the mister—reins still in hand—tipping his cap to CK, and pointing in the direction of the Solomon River. “Bless you, folks,” CK said, and watched as the couple made their way into town to deliver their meal and molasses.

  Mil said, “We should take her to a doctor now. Here.”

  “Our girl’s fine. We all are—we almost there.”

  They were so close. He could feel it.

  “How you know there’s even a doctor in Nicodemus?”

  “Of course there is. I seen it in my vision.”

  “You seen it.” Mil looked away, making that clicking sound again in her mouth. “I’m taking her to town now, CK.”

  “No you ain’t,” said CK. “You’re my wife, you’ll do as I say. God start us on this journey together and we gon finish it so. Ain’t nothing wrong with any of us that can’t be made right in Nicodemus.”

  CK turned in the direction of the Solomon and began to walk. After a brief pause he heard Mil’s footsteps and they continued on until they found the river, and CK stooped by the banks to ladle a hatful of cool water. Slowly he rose and brought some water to Mil and Rachel, and they said nothing to each other for a long time afterward. That night they made their way a little farther on before camping on the bank. Eventually the river would lead them to Nicodemus. The contents of the pack had dwindled on this long journey, having shed some weight at each stop along the way. CK built a fire and set on the coffee, thinned and watery. After trying in vain to catch a jackrabbit that was too elusive in its jagged quickness, they settled for nibbling on the last of their stale bread.

  “How she doing?” he said, nodding at Rachel. Their first words in hours.

  “What you care?” she said, and pulled Rachel’s blanket up so that it covered her neck. It was a cool night and colder still near the water. They slept underneath a quilt with the heat from Rachel’s body providing additional warmth. They set out early in the dawn, unable to sleep after the baby began her crying shake. They walked all that morning and stopped in the early afternoon in the shade of some trees. CK eased into the shallow part of the river, dunking his hat under and spilling a refreshing pool over his head.

  “We almost there, I can feel it,” he said. “Everything’s gonna be okay.”

  Mil was sitting on the ground, leaning against the trunk of a tree, catching her breath. She looked tired and hungry and said nothing. CK filled the tin cups from the pack and brought water to her. As he waded out again, he looked down into the river, seeing the occasional fish swim past his legs, and there he stood while Mil and Rachel took a short nap, splashing around, trying to catch dinner until his fingers brushed against the tail of a medium-sized trout and brought him headfirst and all the way under, soaked. He resurfaced, shooting a thin stream of water out of his mouth, and smiled at Mil, who’d woken in the commotion. “Shoot,” he said. “Nearly had him.” Mil regarded him, then looked away into the distance.

  So they walked and walked, all afternoon, nibbling on the last handful of coarse grain and seed CK had relieved from the freighter’s shipment.

  “How far we?” said Mil.

  “We close.”

  “How close?”

  “Closer. I can feel it.”

  “Quit your feelings already!” she said. “I’ll tell you bout feelings. How bout feeling scared for our daughter? For us starving on this river?”

  “We close, love. Soon, we gon arrive and see what Nicodemus saw—”

  “And what happened to Nicodemus? Huh? Where he end up? He still dead, ain’t he!”

  Dust caked to Mil’s dress, the damp red handkerchief tied round her head. She moved Rachel to the other side, easing the weight on her right hip. Rachel began to cry. Mil bounced her gently and when that failed to calm the child she turned around and undid the knot holding up the top of her dress.

  “The Lord will take care of us,” CK said. How old and weary he felt shouldering the pack.

  “That so,” Mil said over her shoulder. “He spoke to you, did He?”

  “When’d you take on the doubting of Thomas?”

  She turned back to face him again.

  “And He gon take care of Rachel?”

  “She washed in the blood, same as us. God been with us the entire time,” said CK, exasperated. “Wouldn’t have made it this far if He weren’t.”

  She pulled the baby away from her breast and turned her so CK could see his daughter’s face. “He with her now, is He?” Rachel was shaking, opening her mouth as she searched for the nipple. “He the one made my milk dry up?” Mil held Rachel with both hands before her bare chest, unashamed of her top-nakedness.

  CK moved close to her. He said, “God wouldn’t have us come all this distance only to take her away.”

  “He done more mysterious things than that.”

  In one fluid motion—CK’s hand darting to the back pocket of his trousers—he grabbed Dulcet’s fife, drew back his hand, and brought it down within a few inches of Mil’s face. She grimaced but held Rachel firmly, suspended in the air between them. He’d never struck his wife. “That what you want?” he said, drawing the cane away. “You gon drive me to lay hands on you, you know that.”

  “Go on, then.”

  He spun left and threw the fife into the water, where it made a light splash, momentarily bobbed, and was gone, taken by the slow pull of the current. He shouted, long and loud, and kicked futilely at the dirt. Mil said nothing. Her breasts, once plump and full, hung low and limp, their roundness gone, leaving depressed folds of extra skin. He took hold of Rachel so Mil could collect herself, but she didn’t let go. She held her gaze as hard on him as was her grip on Rachel.

  “I want you to remember this,” she said.

  His eyes fixed on her chest and now he saw the bite marks, the missing part of her left nipple that was nothing more than a bloodless, pink sore. “Cover yourself, love,” he said softly, and finally she let go.

  It was during that long afternoon and evening that CK finally succumbed to the fear and doubt. His daughter
was sick; he couldn’t believe otherwise any longer. What would become of them if they didn’t soon find food and shelter, a doctor? We are washed in the blood, he told himself. He had led his wife and child across the country in search of a place whose existence the grim reality of the journey seemed to test. Had the sign been false? Maybe he’d misremembered the song. Maybe there was never any prophecy. Had the Lord really shown him Nicodemus—those visions that had led him all this way—or had he affirmed his faith only to achieve the end he desired? Washed in the blood. He was so tired. Maybe people were never meant to leave their homes. Home, he thought. It had been over three months since they left, but it felt so much longer for what they’d been through. Bolivar County. How lonesome he was to see Mississippi again. I am washed in the blood.

  Those summer nights allowed them to work past ten, and Talmen and Rawl spent the first few weeks of June bringing in the early wheat harvest. They walked that sea of gold with scythes in hand, reaping the stemmed wheat that they would later separate from the chaff, tie into bundles, and cart off to millers and granaries. It was the busy season, and Talmen was thankful for it because the intense labor kept most thoughts, baleful and otherwise, at bay. Mostly he felt tired or hungry, and those, when he considered such matters, weren’t bad things to feel if you knew they could be relieved.

  One Sunday night, about eight o’clock, Jesse Mae came running out to the fields. She usually brought them a late supper about this time, and he and Rawl would eat standing up, rushing the food into their mouths before returning to the last few hours of work. But from the sight of his daughter now, breathing so hard, he could see something was the matter. By the time she arrived, she was bent over, trying to catch her breath, and could only muster: “Something happening at that stone house.”

  Talmen dropped his scythe and began to walk the half mile at a brisk pace. His children followed. He knew Jesse Mae had been at the Baldwins’. On Sundays during the harvest, while he and Rawl worked, Eugenia would take Jesse Mae to church and to the after-gathering. Often Jesse Mae stayed late into the evening, learning piano from Mercy.

  “We was practicing our scales when a man come to the door and they started arguing and . . .”

  “Go on,” Talmen urged, but she struggled to keep up with his long strides and had trouble getting anything else out.

  They arrived to take their place in the growing crowd half-circling the stone house. There was an awful commotion of some sort, but Talmen couldn’t see anything from the back. He stood on his tiptoes and when that didn’t help he pushed to the front, and that’s when he saw the two men wrangling in the dirt. Thomas Baldwin and someone he didn’t recognize. They were rolling on the ground, drumming fists into each other’s middle, positioning for leverage. For all the struggle the town had endured, there’d been little quarreling since settling—a couple of fistfights, one of them a contest between ministers arguing over Bible interpretation—and it was as if no one knew what to do, transfixed as they were by the sudden explosion of violence in the calm summer night. These watchers, Talmen realized as he looked around, were from neighboring dugouts. Mrs. Baldwin shielded Mercy from the scene, screaming for someone to do something, but no one said a word or made a move to break up the fight.

  “You no-count criminal—you rotten vagrant!” Baldwin yelled, pinioned by the silent stranger. There was a woman with a child in her arms, pulling on the man’s shoulder, pleading for him to stop. He shook her off, drew back his fist, and quickly struck him over his right eye. Baldwin groaned and rolled onto his side. Then a strange thing happened. The man looked back at the crowd and just sat there as Baldwin regained his wits and started to hit back, repaying the blow a dozen times over. It looked as if he were letting Baldwin hit him, until he finally tipped over and sprawled in the dirt. Baldwin stood over him and kicked his side. He looked at the crowd and screamed, “He tried to break into my house!” He kicked the man again and the stranger’s wife cried, trying to bat away his boot. “They exodusters! You see how they are!”

  Absent a word, Talmen pushed past the bystanders into the moonlit stretch of dirt where the beaten man and his family lay. Baldwin was possessed of an untethered rage that seemed like it might swing Talmen’s way when he stepped between him and the fallen man. Talmen waited for him to make a move, raising his clenched fists. They looked at one another a long second, silent, before Baldwin’s face turned from craze to confusion.

  “What you doing?” he said.

  Talmen looked around at all the eyes trained on him, dropped his hands, and then knelt by the stranger. His eye was swollen shut, blood on his gums and lip. The woman’s crying had petered out into a hard kind of breathing. She looked at Talmen, her eyes open wide with uncertain expectation. Talmen helped raise the man to his feet.

  “You saw him hit me, Talmen,” Baldwin said, and then he turned to the crowd as if to plead his case: “I said they’re exodusters! You hear me? They the ones soiling our name.”

  “Hush your meanness,” Talmen said.

  “Don’t let them get away! They’d be strung up where they come from for what they done.”

  “No one’s doing nothing yet,” said Talmen.

  He led the strangers into the crowd, parting the mass of onlookers, who made no moves other than to step out of the way, and in that moment it was all human silence outside the stone house, just the sounds of the earth at night around them. Talmen took them to the dugout, propelled only by an instinct that this was the right and only course. Eugenia, too, seemed to be guided by that same unseen hand, going right to the sod fireplace to prepare food at the strangers’ appearance. She sent Jesse Mae to the well to draw water and Rawl to call on Dr. Newth.

  CK and Mil sat by the fire, she dabbing at his face with a wet rag as he stared into the blue of the flames, wincing when she touched directly on a sore.

  “My daughter,” Mil said. “She sick.”

  Eugenia was at the stove boiling beans and salt pork, mixing biscuits in the excess grease and gristle of their earlier supper. “Doctor’s on the way,” she said. Soon she fixed them a plate and when she set the food before them, she said, “May I?” and motioned at Rachel. Mil handed the baby to Eugenia and took up her plate.

  “You gon be right better soon. Just you hang on,” Eugenia said as she looked at the child.

  Mil watched the older woman handle her baby as she forked food rapidly into her mouth.

  “Is it yellow fever?” Mil said.

  Eugenia said she felt the fever in the baby and looked hard at her coloring for jaundice, but it was tough to tell there in the night.

  “We’ll see what Dr. Newth say.”

  Talmen looked on from a stool in the corner, thinking about what had happened. He’d wanted Baldwin to make a move, so he’d have an excuse to crush him the way he’d once imagined crushing that stone house. It was that desire more than anything else, he knew, that had propelled him forward, not some sense of righteousness that wouldn’t stand for seeing a stranger beaten to death in such lawlessness. He didn’t even know whether this man deserved defense; he still hadn’t said so much as a word.

  “Gonna tell us about it already?” Talmen said.

  The man sopped his plate clean, then stood, half bent over so as not to hit his head on the ceiling. Talmen motioned at him to follow and removed the orange door to let the dugout cool down.

  Outside, CK saw a man heading their way.

  “That the doctor?” he said. “He white?”

  “Let the man do his job,” Talmen said. “Follow me.” When CK didn’t budge, Talmen assured him they’d come back soon, and CK relented. Talmen led him to the river, where they took a seat under the cottonwood. “My feet,” Talmen said, removing his shabby boots. “Darn near rubbed raw from walking that wheat stubble all day.” He rose and went to put his feet in the river, sighing heavily as he looked up above him. It was full dark and the stars shined bright in the vast sky. A grave silence had taken hold of CK, but he seemed to listen as T
almen—not knowing what to say to this mute man—spoke. “You exodusters, huh?”

  CK nodded.

  “Know about long journeys myself,” Talmen said, and told of his family’s move to Nicodemus, recounting in great detail that first long winter and how they’d been saved only by the Osage and the arrival of that final group from Kentucky last year.

  Hearing this unlodged the words that finally allowed CK to speak: “Where everybody at? Where the town? All the buildings—the houses, the church and school?”

  “Got a church, not too far,” Talmen said. “We working on a school, but ain’t finished.” He lifted his feet out of the water, one at a time, and let the air send a cool shock through them before dunking them under again. “And people, they all around.”

  “Where at?”

  “In the ground, most of them. Like us.” Talmen pointed out the faint wisps of smoke from fires in the distance mingling up into the night.

  “In the ground, like a prairie dog?”

  “Ain’t for long. We gon build us a soddie after next harvest.”

  “Ain’t like I thought.” CK shook his head. “Ain’t like I thought at all.”

  “We a young town.”

  CK considered this a moment: “I spose living free in the ground’s a might better than where we come from.”

  “The Lower?”

  CK nodded. “Mississip.”

  “Had a bunch arrive from there after last winter. Couple months back. February. Group of fifty thereabouts.”

  “From Mississippi?”

  “Sure enough. They settling in right fine.”

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