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Blues PowerA NOVEL
By Mike Wayne Hester
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Mike Wayne Hester
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEarth I
Built by Rufus Epps, a son of a slave, the barn was a shrine to his enduring legend. Folk tales told of his iron for muscles, of his cold mountain water for blood, of his black eyes that, like an owl, penetrated deep, right to the source of whatever they focused on. Blessed with great strength and remarkable insight, he naturally saw the right path before him and walked it with dignity.
The events, which led to the construction of the barn and Rufus Epps becoming a legend, started on a spring day a few years before the Twentieth Century.
* * *
In darkness, he came to the river and waited silently for the first sliver of light in the eastern sky. As the heavens brightened and changed from a burnt crimson to lavender blue, he cast his line into the waters and focused his black eyes on the dark woods, projecting himself out into the world. Slowly, he became one with the oak, the pine, the sycamore, became one with the robin, the blue jay, the cardinal, became one with the ant, the worm, the butterfly, became one with the grass, the ground, the roots, became one with the wolf, the bear, the wild cat, became one with the catfish, the trout, the bass, until his presence, his spirit, could be felt by all the living.
At peace, he existed. Nature taught him her secrets of day and night, of rain and drought, of seeding and harvesting, of birth and death. The universe flared out before his eyes, dazzling him with wonders beyond belief like exploding novas, expanding black holes, spinning planets, orbiting moons.
"Rufus ... Rufus Epps ... where you at?" a voice shouted out.
The calling of his name broke the spell. Rufus Epps saw Walter Cook scampering down the hillside like a rabbit chased by a fox.
"Over here," Rufus Epps shouted.
Walter Cook stopped, looked around, saw Rufus Epps waving at him from the opposite bank of the river. He sprinted across the water so fast that he made only gentle ripples on its surface.
Dry and out of breath, he stopped in front of Rufus Epps.
"I got news."
"Must be somethin'. You just 'bout broke you neck runnin' down that hill."
"Josh Atwater dyin'."
"Every man's time comes, even a white man's. What's that got to do with me?"
"He wants to see you."
"Don't see why. I ain't no preacher, and I sure ain't no kin of his."
"He's on his deathbed. It's his last request. You got to go."
"Seems mighty strange to me. You know why he wants to see me?"
"He just told me to come and fetch you, that's all. Maybe, he owes you some money for one of them odd jobs you done for him."
"The man don't owe me nothin'."
"Maybe, you owe him."
"You know better, Walter."
"Might as well since you done scared off all the fish."
* * *
Josh Atwater's white two-story house, which sat on the northeastern edge of his farm, smelled of death and tears.
Stretched out on his bed, the cancer eating away his insides, Josh Atwater knew he would not see another sunrise. With his wife and all of his friends dead for many years, he welcomed the end of his life and was ready to embrace God or Satan, whichever one owned his soul come Judgment Day. Meticulously, like everything else in his life, he made sure that the coffin, the headstone, the funeral, the burial, the will, met with his approval. Only one item remained that needed attended to before his death. For years, he dreaded this moment, always putting it off until the next day or next year. Now, the time to deal with it had arrived.
The nurse that held the deathwatch over him entered the bedroom.
"There's a colored man out in the yard. Says he's Rufus Epps, and you want to see him."
Josh Atwater nodded.
"See him in."
As he waited with closed eyes, Josh Atwater realized he had been a coward all these years; it tasted bitter and pained him worst than the cancer.
Josh Atwater heard footsteps at the doorway. Slowly, he opened his eyes. Behind the nurse, hat in his hands, a man of enormous height and width stood.
"Here he is," the nurse said.
"Rufus, that you?" Josh Atwater asked.
"It's me," Rufus Epps replied.
Josh Atwater motioned for Rufus Epps to enter the bedroom.
"Over here, next to the bed, so I can see you better."
Gracefully, Rufus Epps crossed the bedroom in two strides and stood over the small, crumpled body.
Josh Atwater felt the shadow of Rufus Epps cover him.
"Rufus, 'fore I die there's somethin' I need to tell you. Never did know your daddy or momma, did you?"
"You know that," Rufus Epps answered coldly.
Josh Atwater grimaced.
"I'm to blame for that, Rufus. Not alone, mind you, but I helped them."
"Your daddy was owned by my father. This was right before the War. In those days, the South was full of fear and rage. Fear the North would take way our way of life. Rage against 'em for tryin'. Hundreds of slaves, like your daddy, tried to run away up North where they could be free men. With fields to plow, with cotton and crops to pick, with our homes and lives at stake, we couldn't allow that. A bunch of us tracked your daddy with hounds for days. Caught him just before he crossed the Line.
"My father wanted to make an example of him, so we cut open the bottom of his feet, put salt in the wounds, and made him walk back home."
Josh Atwater noticed the eyes of Rufus Epps narrow to slits.
"Back home we hung him in front of the other slaves. Your momma had just given birth to you, but she mourned herself to an early grave over your daddy's death."
Josh Atwater saw anger and hate spread across the face of Rufus Epps.
"I can tell you this 'bout your daddy. Never once, did he scream or let on he was in pain on that walk back home, even though he left a trail of blood behind him. Never once did he shake from fear, not even when we tightened the noose 'round his neck."
"Why tell me this now?" Rufus Epps asked in a strained voice.
"Somethings a man can't leave undone," Josh Atwater replied in a weak mumble.
"You want my forgiveness?"
"No. I did what I thought was right at the time."
"To give to you what's due."
"What? A father? A mother? A childhood?"
Sadly, Josh Atwater shook his head.
"No, I can't do that. But I can give you a piece of land down by the creek."
"The price of a clean soul, Mr. Atwater?"
"Then go to hell with a damned one."
"Don't be a fool, Rufus. Take the land."
Rufus Epps clenched his fists.
"If you wasn't on your deathbed, I'd kill you as you lay."
"Why do you think I waited until now? I'm afraid I possess none of your daddy's courage. Just the land, Rufus. Now, I'm givin' some of it to you. You won't be poor no more. You'll be a man with land ... his own land. You've always wanted your own piece of land, didn't you, Rufus?"
Josh Atwater saw the weakness, the strength, the greed of a vision in the eyes of Rufus Epps.
"Not every nigra gets this chance. Take it. Take it."
But the anger returned to the eyes of Rufus Epps.
"I don't want no charity from you."
"Then buy it."
"Ain't got no money like that."
"How much you got?"
Rufus Epps searched through his pockets.
"A few coins."
Josh Atwater reached over to the nightstand, pulled out a drawer. From it, he took out a deed.
"Put the money on the nightstand" Rufus Epps, seeing a chance of a lifetime, flung the coins on the nightstand; they scattered across the bedroom.
Josh Atwater spread out the deed on the bed.
"Here's a pen. Sign here."
"Then make your mark."
Rufus Epps drew his mark on the deed.
Josh Atwater sighed.
"It's done. All you have to do is file it in town. Now, let me die in peace."
But before Rufus Epps left, Josh Atwater felt the man's hot breath on his ear.
"May you burn in hell for all eternity for what you did to my people."
"Most likely will," Josh Atwater mumbled, the darkness already coming on deep and quick.
* * *
The news of Josh Atwater selling land to Rufus Epps spread quickly through Heyoka, which alarmed the whites: What! A nigra ownin' land. I never heard of such a thing.
Jim Crow, Heyoka's richest merchant and leading citizen, called for a meeting at the town hall. In front of a packed hall, dressed in his finest suit from New Orleans, looking more like a politician than an owner of a general store and gin house, he addressed his fellow white citizens of Heyoka:
"I know we are all shocked over the late Josh Atwater's decision to sell a parcel of his land to that nigra, Rufus Epps. He broke a solemn pact between white landowners that has existed since the War. But there are measures we can take to stop the transaction before it becomes legal and binding. I will speak to Rufus Epps and ask him if he would not think it better for all concerned if he sold the land to the township. I'm sure we can afford to see to it that he receives a fair profit from the deal."
"What if he don't want to sell?" a man shouted.
"Then we will have to use a stronger means of persuasion."
After the meeting, Jim Crow, in his horse drawn carriage, crossed the railroad tracks in search of Rufus Epps. He hardly ever ventured into this section of town. All of his life, he had felt nothing but disgust and hate towards the way the blacks lived in shacks, dressed in rags, smelled of sweat. Their children ran wild on the dirt streets like heathens; it took every bit of his self-control not to trample them under the hoofs of his horse or run them over with the wheels of his carriage.
Just past the tracks, he saw an old woman sitting in front of her shack.
"Know where I can find Rufus Epps?"
The old woman, who chewed tobacco, spit out its dark, brown juices in a jar.
"What you want with him?"
"Got business with him."
"Ain't seen him."
"I'm not out to hurt him, just want to talk some sense into him."
Silently, the old woman stared at him.
Jim Crow whipped his horse into a gallop. He journeyed out to the rural areas, to the tenant farms and fields, but no one gave him any leads on where he could find Rufus Epps.
Worn out and disheartened, Jim Crow headed back to town in the late afternoon. A conspiracy that's what it is - a goddamn conspiracy. Well, we got ways of dealin' with uppity nigras.
Just outside of Heyoka, Jim Crow noticed Leo Ford, a shiftless white drunk, sitting under the shade of an oak at the side of the road.
"Seen or heard anything of Rufus Epps?"
"Heard you was lookin' for him, but just 'bout everybody in the parish knows that by now."
"The nigras ain't talkin', that's for sure."
"Yeah, Mr. Crow, they take care of their own. Just like we take care of our own. Been a hot one today, Mr. Crow. Man like me sure could go for a drink. Shit, a bottle would be even better. If you take care of me, I might be able to take care of you."
"Then you know where I can find Rufus Epps?"
"Not rightly. But I did hear when he plans to come in town to file that deed of his."
Leo Ford smiled broadly.
"Like I said, a man needs a bottle on a hot day like this."
Jim Crow reached into his pants pocket, pulled out two silver dollars, threw them in the dirt road.
Leo Ford picked up the coins.
"You're a most generous man, Mr. Crow. He'll be comin' tomorrow mornin', bright and early."
Once again, Jim Crow whipped his horse into a gallop, leaving a cloud of dust behind him that choked Leo Ford.
* * *
The next morning most of the whites of Heyoka lined the streets and sidewalks; some held rocks, others cradled rifles and shotguns in their arms. All of them determined to keep Rufus Epps from reaching the parish courthouse.
But when Rufus Epps strolled into town to file the deed, not one rock was thrown, not one shot was fired, not one word was spoken against him - no, it was a not change of heart that kept them at bay, but the smile on his face, the conviction of his walk, and the power in him that went beyond mere mortality, which instilled fear and shame in their minds and hearts. Timidly, they watched him enter the courthouse and a few minutes come out.
After Rufus Epps left town, Jim Crow gathered the people around him.
"That nigra son of a bitch got no mule and no money to buy one. Plus, his kind is lazy. Have to lay the whip to them to get a decent day's work. You watch, that land will go bad before long. If not, well, there's always the night and the horrible things that wander in it's darkness he'll have to deal with."
* * *
The first night on his own land, Rufus Epps lay on open ground. The cosmos swirled above him, and the wind spoke to him in Ma Dee's voice: The hate you sow today will be the sorrow you reap tomorrow.
Ma Dee, his late grandmother, raised him to be strong yet flexible, independent yet one with all things, to seek truth yet never accept it. At night, she told him tales of the ancient land, of the lion, the money, and the snake. She showed him how to surrender himself to the fates of the universe, to his destiny - then, she said, no man or woman can hurt you, for the natural forces will protect you.
The night before, as he prepared himself for the task ahead by remembering all that Ma Dee had taught him, he had felt his belly juke jumping; but that morning, calm and no longer afraid, he walked into Heyoka, parting the river of whiteness that stretched out before him, and filed the deed. He had enjoyed seeing the fear on the faces and in the eyes of the whites.
Ma Dee spoke again: the hate you sow today will be the sorrow you reap tomorrow.
"Yes, I hate Josh Atwater and all the whites like him," he told the wind.
But now you have land, Ma Dee replied. And a vision.
"What vision?" he asked.
But the wind had ceased to blow.
Suddenly, the dark sky exploded with the fire of a hundred or more crisscrossing comets. Burnt orange. Cobalt blue. Celestial fireworks of God's spitfire.
At first, Rufus Epps saw nothing but chaos in the outburst; then, he noticed, as if guided by spirits, that the tails of the comets formed an image of a huge barn. A barn where humans and animals shared peace and communion. A barn where folks could come to sing, dance, and forget the toil of the day. A barn where all things were holy. As quickly as the barn appeared, it vanished; but not before its blueprint was branded on the mind, body, and soul of Rufus Epps.
With his question answered, he closed his eyes and drifted into a deep sleep.
The trembling of the ground woke him. Rufus Epps sat up. Listened. The sound of horses at a gallop. A circle of fire, as if the comets had descended from the heavens to soar on earth, enclosed around him. He stood. Out of the night, ghosts on horses appeared, each one holding a torch, each one flesh and blood.
"What you want?" Rufus Epps demanded.
Silently, the ghosts stared at him.
"Get off my land," Rufus Epps commanded.
The ghosts laughed at him.
"Ain't afraid of you. Ain't afraid to die."
The ghosts staked a wooden cross into the ground, set it on fire.
"That don't scare me none."
The ghosts aimed rifles and shotguns at his heart.
"I'm ready to meet my God."
At that moment, the wind returned in a raging whirl, blowing down the flaming cross. Frightened, the horses reared. Ghost after ghost fell to the ground. The wind picked them up, spun them around in the air, threw them back into the night.
As the horses scattered in every direction and the ghosts' screams and moans echoed through the woods, the gale force wind subsided to a slight breeze.
The hate you sow today will be the sorrow you reap tomorrow.
* * *
Black and white. White and black. Two colors at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Two different colors of skin. Two people divided by freedom and slavery, by suppression and degradation, by fear and distrust. Two people divided by railroad tracks, which run through a small southern town. Paved roads on the white side. Dirt roads on the black. Schools on the white side. No schools on the black side. Jobs on the white side. No jobs on the black side. Beautiful houses on the white side. Shacks on the black side. Justice on the white side. Injustice on the black side. Full bellies on the white side. Empty bellies on the black side. Hate on the white side. Hate on the black side. Love on the white side. Love on the black side. Birth on the white side. Birth on the black side. Children on the white side. Children on the black side. Laughter on the white side. Laughter on the black side. Old age on the white side. Old age on the black side. Death on the white side. Death on the black side. Tears on the white side. Tears on the black side.
Excerpted from Blues Power by Mike Wayne Hester Copyright © 2010 by Mike Wayne Hester. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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