Read an ExcerptThe Knees Of Gullah Island
By Dwight Fryer Kimani Press Copyright © 2008 Dwight Fryer
All right reserved.
Joseph lay on his side atop piles of prickly straw inside a cattle car. His eyelids were heavy, but the pungent smells transported him to consciousness. The train had stopped and was not moving. Something was burning nearby and the smoke permeated the openings near the top of the walls.
Joseph rested his head on his emaciated biceps that cradled his head. His gaze wandered to his traveling partner Pete sitting across the rail car. Pete's direct but blank stare pointed at Joseph. Joseph smiled. "What you looking at, old man?" Joseph asked. During their thirteen years on the road Pete had talked every waking moment. Now, Pete did not reply so Joseph said, "Reverend Peter Johnson, how's my favorite preacher doing today?"
Pete coughed. "Young preacher man, I'm aching today." He groaned and repeated his cough several times. Pete harked and jerked his head back to spit toward the end of the car. "What's burning? Where are we?"
"I don't know what's on fire. I just woke up and can't tell exactly where we are either," Joseph answered.
"That smell and how I feel takes me outta 1883 and to the marches across the South with Sherman's Union army."
Joseph asked, "Pete, how was that?"
Pete paused. He tried to get up, but could not rise. He rolled onto his right side, placed his bundle under hishead. His eyes never left Joseph's. He coughed and spit out what came up. "This cough's killing me." He looked away then returned his gaze to the young man. He said softly, "You ever seen a cotton fire?"
Joseph nodded. "As a boy on Edisto Island in South Carolina."
Pete said, "I saw plenty during that part of the war. If it was windy, that dry cotton burned like kerosene was on it." He wiped sweat from his brow. Pete sighed and rolled onto his back. "Joseph, when I encountered you and your mother on Edisto, you were a young boy. You told me you wanted to minister to folks. During our time together, I've taught you all I could about what it takes to do that, right?"
"Sure, Pete," Joseph said.
"When you going home to that girl of yours?" Pete asked.
Pete continued, "We ain't gone find your father. It's time you head to Charleston to that girl you always talking about and to Queen Esther. You hear?" He stared at Joseph.
"Yessuh," Joseph replied.
"I need you to go home. We've been a strange pair traveling around for thirteen years now. You colored and I'm white. Sometimes we slept in places like this. At other stops, we were in barns, under bridges, at almshouses or even in jails."
Joseph coughed a few times.
Pete said, "Must be something serious we got. I've never had a cough like this in the summertime. We better see 'bout it or it's gone kill us." He stopped talking and breathed deeply.
"You ought to stop speaking that," Joseph warned.
"Over and over during the War I went from being chaplain to a madman," Pete stated.
Joseph gave him a quizzical look.
Pete continued, "Every day of that ugly war I smelled and witnessed death. I hated what it'd done to our country, pitted the North and South. Most of all I regretted your family's kidnapping from Cumberland and my hand in it."
Joseph shifted in his place. He used both hands to push himself up from the filthy floor. "Pete, you never said you had a part in what happened. Why've you never tol' me that before? What'd you do?" Anger resonated with each of his loud words.
Pete did not answer. Finally, he said, "Joseph, you remember I used to visit your pastor, Reverend David Hilhouse Buehl, in Cumberland?"
Joseph said, "Yes sir."
"That wasn't the only reason I came." Pete stared at the ceiling. "Reverend Buehl and I were part of a network, the Underground Railroad. We helped runaway slaves get North."
"Pete, really? Why didn't you say so before?"
"Joseph, hear the rest. After I preached, I'd always head back over the National Road to Pittsburgh. We'd hide the slaves in a false bottom under my wagon." He laughed several times before a coughing spell hit him. It ended with a deep wheezing sound that resonated with every breath he took. Pete laughed again.
Joseph said, "What's so funny?"
"I bet helping Southern human chattel escape was never on the mind of slave-holding President Tom Jefferson when he ordered the building of that road."
"Papa always said that was why my grandfather moved to Cumberland from Philadelphiathe blacksmith business from all the travelers heading west," Joseph stated.
Pete said, "Your grandfather went there for another reason he couldn't know. It was for his son's wife, your mother, to some day be a conductor on the Underground Railroad."
"My mauma," Joseph said.
Pete nodded several times. He looked at Joseph and said, "The night they took your family" He paused to wheeze and had trouble getting his breath. "Some slave catchers stopped me about five miles outside of town. It was around ten o'clock. There were two of 'em and they were from Tennessee. The tall one named Rafe Coleman did most of the talking. He kept asking me about a group of runawaysthey were in my wagon all the time. I kept saying I hadn't seen any Negroes. They didn't believe me.
The other one was shorter and fat." He paused and stared at Joseph again. "The moon wasn't up that night and you could see every star. We were down in a valley just before you head into the mountains toward Pittsburgh. The stout guy didn't talk much, but the big fellow ran off at the mouth. His hair was so red that I could see its color in the dark. He jumped off his horse and pulled me from my wagon. He hit me with a whip." Pete stopped speaking and did not begin again.
Joseph held his breath and waited. Finally he said, "Pete, what happened?"
Pete wheezed again. When he resumed, his words came slow and were slurred. He said, "He hit me over and over. The tall one said, 'U'm gone beat you like I would the niggers you been stealing.' He hit me in the jaw with his fist so hard that I fell to the ground on my face. That blow knocked out several of my teeth." Pete touched his left cheek. "He kicked me in my side and started in with the whip again. It cut right through my shirt. I was bleeding from everywhere he hit me. My back, shoulders, arms, face, and even my hands were cut up. He just kept on and on hitting me." Pete paused for a few moments. "I thought he he was going to kill me. The fat fellow laughed every time that whip connected."
Pete stopped talking and his breathing became more shallow and slower. He said, "Joseph, I told 'em that your mother used her quilts to signal when the runaways should come to Emanuel Church. I'm so sorry. I, I told him about Queen Esther, Reverend Buehl, and our network in Cumberland." Pete was crying. "He hit me again and I gave up the runaways under the boards in my wagon."
Joseph stared at Pete. Neither said a word.
Joseph finally broke the silence. "Is that why you been trying to help me?"
Pete nodded. He said, "I'm sorry. I, I, I been trying to fix it since we left Charleston in 1870." His last words came out in a barely audible whisper followed by two deep sighs.
"You shoulda tol' me dis befo'. Why didn't you?" Joseph asked, his tone full of pain.
Pete did not answer and just stared at Joseph.
Joseph said, "Pete, you all right?"
Pete's frozen stare spurred Joseph to move quicker than he had in a long time. He crawled toward his friend but stopped a short distance from Pete's motionless body. He reached out, touched him, then pulled back to stifle the hacking cough they had both suffered for months.
"Well, Pete, you said whatever we had would kill us guess you were right."
In the distance, a voice shouted, a nearby rail car door rolled open along its track, and Joseph struggled to his feet. His eyes stayed on Pete while he backed away. Joseph knew death well.
"They coming, Pete. Pete" he paused "III gotta go." He bent down to grope for his bundle. Joseph's eyes never left Pete's body and he moved toward the end of the rail car, the place they'd called home for the past few days. He walked back, lifted the dead man's head, and removed Pete's bundle. Joseph gently placed Pete's head on the floor. Joseph struggled up the ladder steps to the roof trapdoor, his tear-filled eyes still on Pete. He pushed open the exit and raised his head through the opening to squint at the daylight before ducking below the roofline for one last look at his friend. "Pete, t'ank you for all oona done," Joseph whispered. "I'll keep looking for my papa."
He wiped both eyes with the back of his hand and pulled himself through the trapdoor, gained his bearings on the roof, and climbed down the ladder at the end of the rail car. Joseph jumped to the ground on the side of the train away from where he figured a car-by-car search for tramps was taking place. His feet hit the ground and, two bounds later, Joseph crossed a dusty road and entered a well-worn path through a briar patch.
He moved through the blackberries like a cottontail and disappeared into the thick brush as the door to his and Pete's rolling bedchamber banged open on the other side of the freight train. He paused to listen for the railroad workers' discovery of the body of the Reverend Mr. Peter Johnson, Joseph's friend since childhood and father-figure during their long years of travel.
"Come on out of there!" drawled an angry Southern voice.
Another man said, "He ain't coming nowheres." The man paused before adding, "Can't you see that fella dead?"
"Damn if he ain't," the first man replied a few seconds later.
Joseph whispered in prayer, "See you sometime, Pete." He continued his silent escape through the brush, his aching, empty stomach roiling. A steam whistle blew three short blasts and he looked up at the noonday sun cascading through a break in the canopy above.
Excerpted from The Knees Of Gullah Island by Dwight Fryer Copyright © 2008 by Dwight Fryer. Excerpted by permission.
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