- Blair, John F. Publisher
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The man the Curtises had once owned and whom they had called Black Gamaliel stood at the top of the lane and watched the distant figures disputing the fire down in the river bottom, where he remembered planting oats and cutting timothy. The field had grown over in weeds since he last saw it, and it looked like the white folk had tried to burn off the waste growth and the fire had got away from them. The wind was out of the south, and it was blowing the fire uphill across a shaggy pasture toward the rise where sat the big frame house and its ruined outbuildings. The white folk were flailing at it with blankets and fetching buckets of water from the river to throw on it. Their movements were jerky and awkward with panic. He set down his knapsack and leaned on his hickory staff and watched them with amusement and satisfaction mixed with an amount of pity almost too small to measure.
His name was Daniel McFeethe McFee line went as far back as anybody in the family could remember, and came from a plantation in Virginia long agobut when the Curtises bought him he felt obstinate and wouldn't give his true name, and the judge had called him Black Gamaliel. He was a young buck at the time, nineteen years old, a prime field hand also trained as a carpenter; the judge had given seven hundred and fifty dollars for him. But no matter what the Curtises called him, he had been Daniel McFee then and had remained Daniel McFee through sixteen years of slavery, and then he'd been Daniel McFee through three years of freedom, two of them attached to the Unionarmy; and he was Daniel McFee here today, a veteran of war and a free man, looking down on the farm where he had been in bondage, while the people he once called Marster and Mistress struggled comically to fight a fire they'd started but couldn't control. He smiled. Hadn't that been what all of Dixie had donelit a fire that got away from them and ended by burning them out?
He settled on his rump among the bloodroot and arbutus growing on the verge of the path and filled his corncob pipe and lit it and sat smoking in the fine spring weather with his staff across his lap. The old place had suffered in the war. He looked for the barn he had helped to build but in its place saw only a heap of charred timbers covered by a net of honeysuckle and morning glory. The big house was in one piece but looked mighty shabby, with the paint flaking off of it and all the shutters and gallery railings gone and the front steps broken in. The smithy and the corncrib and the smokehouse and the chicken coop had disappeared. Across the little branch where the quarters had once stood there was nothing now but briars and wild blackberry and patches of thistle, except for the one apple tree he remembered so well. It had stood by the stoop of the cabin where he and Sukey and Sukey's Hamby had lived, and each fall he and Sukey and Hamby had eaten of its fruit, and sometimes Sukey would bake a cobbler with its apples that tasted bitter and sweet at the same time in a way no other apples ever had. He could taste those apples now as he sat. That tree had borne every year for sixteen years, but now it looked dead. Sukey's grave would be off yonder near those poplars, but he couldn't see it for the high uncut grass.
The smoke from the fire rose in several gray plumes that joined high up to form one thick column against the deep blue sky, in which a barely visible moon still shone pale as a wafer of partly melted ice. The fire was closing in around the base of the promontory on which the house stood, with its fine view of the valley of the Hiwassee and the Georgia mountains in the distance. Daniel thought the chain of fire gathered around that hill resembled a string of baubles about a woman's neck. The white folk dashed to and fro beating at the fire and fetching water from the springhouse, because it was nearer than the river now. Behind them the burnt fields smoldered and gusts of black chaff blew in the wind.
The people he had camped with two nights ago by Munday's place at Aquone came along the road above him and paused to watch with him. There were only nine of them now, and the large buck who had been a driver on a South Carolina rice plantation explained that two of them had turned off that morning to go up Shooting Creek. Daniel remembered them and sourly reflected that they had been the best two. There had never been a lot of coloreds in this part of the country, and during the war there had not been a one, for they had all run off. But now it seemed they were everywhere on the roads.
The Negro leading the white mule by a length of plowline asked, "Is this here that homeplace you was going on about, then?" Daniel confirmed that it was, and the Negro laughed. "They gone burn that place slap down, they keep on that way."
His partner with the one eye laughed too and said, "We ought to go down and help. Build a backfire in they house."
Daniel regretted even speaking to them that night at Munday's. If he had not, they wouldn't have felt encouraged to be familiar with him now. But he had been tired and lonesome for talk, even though he knew he was not of their stripe. Such trilling no-accounts were always looking to lord it over the defeated Rebels and insult folk and rob them and above all avoid work of any sort.
"It's burning itself out," he said of the fire. They saw that it was so and soon lost interest, and after a spell of pointless gabble they wandered on down the road. He did not blame such as they for savoring freedom after lifetimes of servitude. But he was ashamed of all shiftless vagabond darkies. He believed there was virtue in ambition and sin in idleness, and he thought now was the time for the colored man to prove himself worthy of the freedom the war had brought him.
He nourished an ambition in his heart which he scarcely understood but which had nevertheless drawn him all the way over the mountains from Nashville in Tennessee, twenty-two days coming. His ambition was to contract with Judge Curtis for free labor and to crop shares with him here along the Hiwassee, where he had grown to manhood as a slave. He could not explain this ambition to himself except to say that the Curtis place seemed home to him in a way that the Cobb place did not. The Cobb place at Bethel on the other side of Waynesville was where he had been born and raised, and then sold off to pay a gambling debt; it was where his mam and pap slept their last sleep.
Yet it was the Curtis farm that lay nearest his heart. Partly this was because it was where he and Sukey and Hamby had been together. But there were other reasons that were less clear. They had to do with those Curtises yonder, who for a long time had been the only family he could claim after Sukey passed and Hamby ran off, who knew him better than anyone alive, although of course they did not understand him at all. Then there was the beauty of the fields and mountains he could see now spread out before him. In the old days, when he was in bondage, the place had seemed dreary to him; he had not been conscious of its appeal. But now it seemed so lovely that it made him ache. There was a time when he had never expected to see it again. Slowly he shook his head in wonderment. Now, after all that had happened to him, here he sat gazing down on what he could not help thinking of as home. And although everything about it was different, everything was also somehow the same. For a moment he felt as if he might sob.
But that quickly passed and was replaced by a brisk and resolute mood more appropriate to the doing of business. Rising, he knocked the coals out of his pipe against the heel of his hand and then shrugged back into his knapsack and adjusted his dusty blue forage cap, which bore the shield insignia of General Jacob Cox's Twenty-third Army Corps. Then he set off confidently down the lane, striking the ground with the point of his staff at every second step. He had long since mastered the art of seeming confident even when he wasn't, because he had promised himself never again to act the cringing servant.
Yet there were many things connected to this ambition of his that worried him, not the least of which was how to address the judge and the other Curtises and how to behave toward them, now that he was free and they were beaten and he and they were all equal before God and President Abraham Lincoln. He had already singled out the small wiry figure of the judge himself by the springhouse and was headed straight for him, and stoutly he rehearsed to himself the speech and demeanor he had studied out to his satisfaction in day after day of careful thought, all the way from Tennessee.
The judge had been as kind a master as a man could be that trafficked in human bondage and unlike most slave owners had worked alongside his Negroes and regarded them as beings possessed of souls. If this hadn't been true then Daniel's ambition would never have come upon him in the first place. But still Daniel had never yet seen a white man that believed a colored was his equal, no matter what President Abraham had declared, and that included Judge Madison Curtis and probably President Abraham himself. Daniel hoped to show the judge respect at the same time he required it for himself. But he was aware of how difficult this would be, and despite his outward confidence he was uneasy as he came down the lane and around the base of the hill.
The judge spied him and stood unmoving, watching curiously, mopping his face with a sooty handkerchief. "I believe I know that walk," the judge declared, "even if I don't recognize that gray beard and woolly poll." He cocked his head inquiringly, like a bird looking for a worm in the ground. "Are you Gamaliel?"
Daniel approached to a distance just out of arm's reach and stopped there and replied with a degree of ceremony, "That's how you knew me, sir"sir, that was the form of address he had chosen"but my actual name is Daniel. Daniel McFee, to say all of it."
At first the judge seemed a little perplexed; he knit his brow and gave Daniel a shrewd look, as if he suspected Daniel were funning him. But after a moment he repeated the name. Then he nodded briskly, and that appeared to end the name business. He ran his forefinger left and right under his mustache in the old way. "Well, Daniel McFee, you can see we've made a botch of things here today and just escaped burning our ownselves down, after three years of warding off marauders that had the same notion in mind."
He was black with soot and running with sweat, and Daniel could see from his gauntness and the tremor of his hands what the war had taken out of him. But he still bantered Daniel just the same, and in spite of himself Daniel was touched, remembering how in slavery times the old man had often been freer with him than he'd been with his own kin.
The earth they stood on was scorched and ashy; it smoked around them, and the smoke stung their eyes till tears rose. So neither Daniel nor the judge could know for sure whether the other wept at this meeting, although even the possibility made Daniel a little angry both at the judge and at himself. But then nothing could change the fact that while they had been master and slave they had also been much like father and son, and it had hurt them both to the quick when Daniel ran off to freedom. Yet in spite of this bond there was a part of Daniel that hated Judge Curtis and reviled his affection, which after all went no deeper than the affection one has for a loyal dog or a good horse.
Through the blur of his tears Daniel looked past the judge into the burnt field to see who was there and saw that they were all womenfolkhe recognized the judge's wile and reckoned the rest were his daughters or daughters-in-law, all grown three years older. There was no sign of the boys he had known as Marster Andy and Marster Jack and Marster Howell. When he left the Curtises in November of sixty-two all three were in the Rebel army, but Marster Jack and Marster Andy had come home sick at heart to lay out. Now it appeared that despite their dread they'd gone back. As Daniel stood pondering their absence it struck him for the first time that when the armies disbanded they and young Marster Howell might not come home at all. Perhaps some of them were reported dead already. The thought pierced him like a knife, and all of a sudden he realized it had never occurred to him that the war could kill those gay boys off. Yet under the circumstances he did not know how to ask about them, and so he stood baffled and tongue-tied while the judge summoned his wife.
She who had always been Mistress Sarah he now gravely addressed as Miz Curtis, as he dragged off the cap he had defiantly left in place when the judge spoke to him. The handsome lively woman he remembered had faded and dwindled. She was only a wisp of a thing with a cloud of silver hair blown scraggly from fighting the fire. Like the judge the war had reduced her. And looking into her eyes Daniel knew it was true that death had taken some of the boys. Yet there was a warmth of affection in her face as she nodded to him and spoke his old name.
"He's called Daniel McFee now," the judge corrected her, so solemnly that Daniel half-suspected him of sarcasm.
"Always was," Daniel insisted.
The judge stared at him in mild astonishment; the name business wasn't finished after all. "Is that so? I thought it was a name you picked when you went to freedom. All those years I called you Gamaliel and you were Daniel McFee instead? Well, I declare."
He looked hurt and this pleased Daniel, although he dared not show it in looks. They stood awkwardly for a time, not knowing what to say next, while the others gathered round and gravely spoke to him one by one, the two eldest girls that were marriedMistress Betty, who would now be Miz Cartman, and Mistress Martha, who would now be Miz Barterand the younger daughtersMistresses Sarah, Polly, Julia and Rebecca, ranging in age from eighteen to ten, who would now be the Misses Curtis. Farther off, wearily leaning on a broom she'd used to beat out the flames, was Marster Andy's wifeno, Mister Andy's wifeMiz Salina, wearing a brown homespun dress the rim of whose skirt had burnt entirely off, leaving a fringe of char. There was no sign of Mister Jack's wife Miz Mary Jane.
Miz Curtis had been watching Daniel closely, and now she suddenly spoke up as if she'd read his mind. "You're wondering about the boys, I expect. Our Howell was killed November a year ago up near Knoxville. And Jack fell sick in Georgia last spring and was captured, and we've heard nothing of him since."
"We pray he's safe, of course," said the judge, though Daniel could see that Miz Curtis had concluded such prayers were wasted. "We pray he'll come back to us."
"I'm sorry," Daniel said, looking at his shoes. "And Mister Andy?"
"We had a letter from him some two weeks since," the judge replied. "He was in Alabama at a place called Spanish Fort and was ill with fever. He's been sickly the whole war, but he's never quit." This last was said proudly, but then at a glance from Miz Curtis the judge seemed to repent his boastfulness and looked shy. "We pray for Andy too," he finished lamely.
"I'll pray too, if I may," Daniel offered.
"We'd be obliged," Miz Curtis said with a wan smile.
There was no mention of the whereabouts of Miz Betty's Mister Bill Cartman or of Miz Martha's Mister Sanders Barter, both of whom Daniel recalled had favored Union. He didn't know how to ask about them either and so did not. But now Miz Curtis spoke up to inquire if Daniel knew the whereabouts of Sukey's Hamby or had heard aught of him; Hamby, Daniel's stepson, had vanished that first spring of the war.
Daniel looked down, viewed his shoe tops. He hated to ponder Hamby because Hamby reminded him of Sukey, and Sukey whom Daniel had loved was altogether gone. And besides, Hamby's rage at being born neither white nor black was not a pleasing memory. With Sukey gone Daniel had tried to tame Hamby, and now when any thought of Hamby came, the guilt of that failure nagged at him.
"Nome," he replied in a small voice, "I've not heard a thing of Hamby in all this time." Sadly Miz Curtis inclined her head and nodded. Sukey's Hamby was yet another casualty of the war, it seemed.
The judge cleared his throat. "Well, I see you wearing the blue. Did you take up arms, Daniel McFee, alter leaving us?" With two boys gone to glory and a third still at risk and every one a Rebel, the judge had not posed a commonplace question. Asking it made him and Daniel so uneasy that they each gazed fixedly into the middle distance without seeing a thing.
"No, sir," said Daniel. "I was an orderly-like, to some officers in the Twenty-third Corps. I was with that Cumberland army two years."
Daniel supposed it was a kind of relief to the judge to learn that he had not fought. At least that was the way it seemed as he stole a glimpse of the judge's averted face.
Once more the judge cleared his throat. "I'll not pretend it ain't hard to see you, Daniel McFee, after what has gone before. And that's not just because you stole a thousand dollars in property by carrying yourself away or because you broke faith with me when I had treated you more like a friend than a servant, more like my own child than even a friend. And it's not even because you joined the enemy in a war that has ended by ruining me and killing one of my boys, if not two, or even all three." As the judge spoke Daniel regarded him sternly, to show that no tirade could discompose him. Miz Curtis turned red as a brick with embarrassment and rested a hand on the judge's sleeve as if to caution him, but he went on undeterred. "I don't reckon we can ever see eye to eye, or that I can ever willingly give you the rights you're bound now to demand." He turned his gaze back and gave Daniel an earnest look, and Daniel was surprised to see that in spite of what he had just said there did not seem to be any rage in him. Almost forlornly the judge added, "I suppose you're a Union Leaguer and a Redstring like all the nigras nowadays."
Sternly Daniel drew himself up to his full height. "Yes, sir, I am indeed." It occurred to him that he would seem less deferential wearing his cap, so he put it back on and gave it a rakish slant. "I'm dedicated to restoring the Union and making a citizen of the Negro."
The judge winced. "I hoped you'd spare me the orations. Already I regret teaching you to read and write and giving you the run of my library." He sighed and wagged his head in exasperation. "But I must admit, in spite of everything, it pleases a part of mea perverse part, no doubtto have you about the place again. But what in the world brings you back? This is a played-out spot, and no doubt a fount of misery for you, as the scene of your bondage." He eyed Daniel edgewise.
Daniel drew a breath and then in one turbulent burst of words related his scheme just as he had rehearsed it so many times on the road. The judge and Miz Curtis and the others all stood amazed, except for Miz Betty, who had always been the feisty one. "Well," she burst out when he had finished, "I for one am in favor of taking Gamalieler, Danielon. If he'd been with us this morning we wouldn't have nearly burnt ourselves out of house and home by mistake."
The judge colored at this; Darnel remembered well enough the pride the old man took in never shunning the basest farming chore and always doing a job better and quicker than any hand on the place. Daniel could see that the fire had degraded him, no matter that he was older now and more infirm, or that he'd had no help beyond womenfolk. Meanwhile Miz Salina spoke up too in Daniel's behalf, and then he saw Miz Sarah pass a look to the judge, and a third time the judge cleared his throat. "Well, I've that plot over by Downings Creek that used to be in hay...."
"I know that piece," Daniel said at once.
Slowly and without glancing at him the judge nodded. "I could let you crop it all to yourself, and go shares on the rest. There's even an old cabin there...."
"I know it too," said Daniel.
Once again the judge sighedwhether because he was sorrowful or relieved, Daniel couldn't say. "Many hereabouts are full of strong feeling," the judge mused. "They despise the Yankee and the nigra. They long for vengeance and thirst for blood." He stood with his hands on his hips, looking off toward the Georgia mountains. "But I confess I don't see how they can still feed such fires. Myself, I'm entirely out of hate. The war's drained me of it." He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and chewed one end of his mustache. "Will you take a third share of whatever crop we can make, less my cost for rations, seed, clothing, medicines and the like?"
To these liberal terms Daniel readily agreed.
"You can keep hogs, a milch cow and cattle if you can find them, and have the right of pasture on the place." The judge considered awhile longer, as if attempting to decide whether the deal was fair or not, and then nodded and said, "All right." And for the first time in nineteen years they shook hands like equals, the judge still not looking at him.
Just then Miz Betty's two boys Jimmy and Andy came running up out of the burnt field covered with soot and cinders and stood one to each side of Miz Betty and stared at Daniel out of their black faces, their big blue eyes pale as the shell of a robin's egg. Daniel remembered those boys three years younger, looking like twinsalthough they were notand doing everything the same. Nothing about them had changed except they were a little bigger. Daniel said hello to them, and in unison they said hello back.
That night, after a poor supper of boiled turnips and potatoes, Madison Curtis retired to his study to prepare for evening devotionals. By candlelight he opened his Bible and searched the Scriptures for a text that might fortify the family in these trying times. But worries without number so distracted him that he could find nothing suitably uplifting.
If indeed the war was lost, as every refugee and wanderer now proclaimed, his affairs were in a condition of shipwreck. The loss of his nigras had cost him ten thousand in property. Like a good patriot he had bought Confederate bonds and the bonds of the state of North Carolina; if the South had gone smash, the former were now worthless and the latter were at risk of repudiation.
Then there was the threat of confiscation. Dire rumor said the Yankees would steal the land of the planters and parcel it out amongst the nigras; if this happened Madison Curtis and his pitiable dependents would soon be roaming the public ways in penury with all the other vagabonds. It was said that a man might ward off this fate by taking the oath, which Madison meant to do as soon as a proper Federal officer presented himself in Hayesville. Yet the Yankees might not permit even this; there were also tales that men of property might be barred from citizenship, might bc imprisoned for treason.
But even if the conquerors let him keep his land and did not jail him he had no way to make a crop. The country swarmed with bandits and malefactors of every evil sort, and in three years of constant raiding they had stolen Madison blind. Left to him were one old plow and a lame mule. He had no seed nor specie to buy any. The fields were all grown over with brush and weeds, and to his chagrin Madison had learned today the folly of trying to burn a field clear with no help beyond women and girls. By forming a contract with Gamalielno, what was his name? Daniel, Daniel McFeehe had no doubt made an even more ludicrous blunder. How could he feed and clothe and furnish a tenant when he could not do the same for himself and his own?
Here amid the general swarm of his woes he felt one pang of special anguish. It had wounded him deeply to learn that in sixteen years' time the servant called Gamaliel had never spoken his true name to him. To Madison such reticence was unseemly and smacked of distrust and even hate, and it shocked him to think that Gamaliel might have harbored such low emotions behind a mask of loyalty and affection, year after year. He was sickened by the idea that rather than admiring him Gamaliel might have loathed him instead.
Madison was certain he had been a good and lenient master. From his youth he had believed that slavery was evil. But it was also a fixed part of the economy he had been born into; he might abhor it, but he could not do away with it. Yet it was within his power to soften it. When he began to accumulate wealth he resolved to mitigate slavery's effects in every way he could. Given the system he lived in he must rely on the labor of slaves; in these high valleys west of the Nantahalas, where population was sparse, there was no reliable free labor to be hired as there was in Macon and Haywood and Buncombe. But he resolved to treat each servant as he might an orphan child given into his care. He never sold a nigra family apart, in fact never sold any nigra at all. To the extent the customs of the country permitted, he did not make many of the distinctions others drew. He sweated with them at their tasks of labor and ate amongst them under the trees at dinnertime. He liberally granted passes for travel, permitted them to marry spouses domiciled at other places, taught them their letters, encouraged them in religion, let them rent themselves out for wages and save their money. He had even on two occasions permitted servants to buy themselves to freedom.
He shook his head in despair. Today, when Gamaliel appeared so unexpectedly, Madison had felt a surge of fondness for his old retainer; it cheered him to think that Gamaliel had come home. He'd even gently chaffed the fellow as of old. But now at the shank of the day, with his tribulations bearing him under, Madison felt desolate. Gamaliel had stood defiantly before him, not doffing his cap, gazing him straight in the eye, pointedly saying Mister and Miz instead of Marster and Mistress. The world was upside down. Menials treated generously all their lives ran away when you needed them most and then, once you were crushed in defeat, turned up full of ingratitude and spite to gloat at your misfortune. The government you had sustained with all your heart and with every cent of your fortune, and to which you had given the life of at least one of your sons, was now collapsing, and the dispersed soldiers of its beaten armies scavenged you like vultures, along with the bushwhackers and outliers and scouts marauding out of the mountains, till at last you looked with longing even to the Lincolnites, in hopes they might at least restore order and so grant you rest from the anxieties and cares that burdened your soul.
Assailed by this host of troubles Madison gave up any notion of selecting an edifying passage and instead resolved to try the old expedient of allowing the Good Book to speak of its own accord. He bent over it and opened its heavy bulk at random, cheating only to the extent that he divided it far enough toward the back to be certain of entering the more charitable New Testament, rather than the gloomy and portentous Old. His eye fell at once on the fifth chapter of the First Epistle of the apostle Paul to the Thessalonians:
But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I
write unto you.
For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a
thief in the night.
For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then suddenly destruction
cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they
shall not escape.
But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake
you as a thief.
Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are
not of the night, nor of darkness.
Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober.
For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken be
drunken in the night.
But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of
faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation.
For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by
our Lord Jesus Christ,
Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together
When Madison read those words a little later at evening devotionals, with the family gathered about him in the parlor, his wife Sarah bobbed quietly in her rocking chair, her mind not on the gospel at all but instead on her precious lost boys. For Sarah no comfort was to be had anymore from Scripture. Day after day she pondered her two dead sons and pined after them, and again and again she reproached herself for being a violent Rebel mother. Others she knew had urged their boys to avoid the war, to lay out, and had hidden them away front the conscript officers. But Sarah had spoken to hers of duty and honor. Proudly she'd sent Howell and Jack and Andy off to the army, and proudly she'd imagined them heroes and paragons of the Cause.
Had Sarah been less of a partisan her boys might be alive yet. But instead Howell slept in an unmarked grave in Tennessee and Jack had died a captive of the enemyshe knew this in her heart, although none had borne her the newsand poor Andy, her eldest, lay sick in far-off Alabama amid the wreck of a lost war. Where Andy was concerned Sarah also knew a kind of shame. He was a delicate and retiring sort where the others were hearty, and Sarah had always lavished on him care she thought the others did not need. Now the sons she had neglected were dead and the one she had doted on remained. She tormented herself with thoughts of how Jack and Howell might have longed for the mother's love they saw poured out only to Andy.
These were the notions in her head, not the teachings of the Word. It couldn't be part of some unknowable divine plan that her innocent boysand all the other boys tooshould die. It couldn't be that God was cruel enough to prove faith by inflicting such pain and loss. Instead she believed that God had little to do with any of it. God, she thought, was grieving at the works of man, to whom He had granted free will. It was the will of man that Howell and Jack were dead, not the will of God. Sarah was tempted to pray for God and not to Him. She thought God needed comfort just as she did.
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If you like historical novels and especially civil war era then this book is for you. It covers the year after the war and I had tells of the families and attitudes of that time. Very interesting and well written.