As Levy clings to a tree high above a river and tries to catch his breath, he doesn't know what to do next. He has been a slave for Mr. Willoughby since he was little boy, and now things are changing. Unsure of what year it is, Levy escapes the jaws of slavery on the cotton plantation. He is a runaway slave without a plan.
As soon as he sees a boat floating in the river, Levy knows what he must do. With Mr. Willoughby on his tail, Levy boards the boat and hides behind the big wheel. As he somehow eludes capture, he begins a journey with a colored captain at the helm who works for none other than Levy's former owner. As the captain takes Levy under his wing and they travel down the river, Levy finally learns what it's like to be a free man with choices and the ability to make decisions for himself. But danger lurks around every curve, and Levy soon finds that his journey to independence will not come without challenges.
In the second installment of this historical tale, a Lincoln-freed Colored risks everything in order to realize the sweet taste of liberty and justice for all.
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AND FACE THE UNKNOWNThe Journey of a Lincoln-Freed Colored
By CD Harper
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 CD Harper
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSo I ran! Just jerked away from him and ran! Didn't know which way to run. Didn't know north from south, east from west. But I knew if I ran through the cotton field, I would end up down in the swamp. That was the scary place where Mr. Willoughby—he was the man that owned everything, including me—took all his dead slaves and just dumped them. Everybody called it the slave graveyard! Way over there, on the other side of the cotton field.
And if I ran the other way, going in the other direction, that would take me right over to that other swamp, across from the cotton field, on the other side where them Indians would come out of every now and then, trying to scare us. Old slaves said if you got close enough, you could hear the mean sounds and see how ugly-looking it was, always churning, growing plants ain't nobody ever seen before, with loud and creepy and unknown animals heard but never seen. Even Mr. Willoughby didn't go over there. Fact is, he stayed away from that side of his place altogether. Old slaves also said it had fish and other animals that screamed and cried at night and loved to chew on slaves' limbs. Wasn't no field or anything hiding it. It was just there, like it dared anybody to come near. Tell you the truth, I didn't know if any of this was true 'cause I never been to either place and didn't plan on going.
So I headed straight for the river. I don't know what I was thinking, 'cause I couldn't swim. I was hemmed in! The only other way would of been straight through Mr. Willoughby's house that had a front door and a back door. If I got through the front door of the house, I could go out the back door, but Mr. Willoughby must of gone home since he wasn't chasing me. There was no way I was goin' run through the front door and out the back door with him there. Even if I got pass him, behind the house was them woods where all them Indians lived.
I didn't know nothing about them—the Indians, I mean—and they didn't know nothing about me or Mr. Willoughby or anyone else on his place. All they ever did was come out of that swamp on naked horses and ride around looking at stuff, including Mr. Willoughby, who never said anything to them one way or the other. He never asked them what they wanted or what they was looking for. He never bothered them and they never bothered him, 'cept to ride them horses on his land.
But right before the river was a small patch of woods, where I worked. Slaves that been around a long time say Mr. Willoughby's grandfather and his slaves built the house, the storehouse, the overseer's place, and all the other shacks and slave shacks from the trees there. That's where Mr. Willoughby had me working. So I knew them woods pretty good.
But I never paid much attention to the river before. It was just there! I'd bring my lumber down to the stacking place and leave it, never looking at the water or anything else. I did the same thing day in, day out, chop the tree down, cut it into pieces small enough to put on the cart, take the cart down to the shacking place, unload the cart, go back up the hill, and do the same things as many times as Mr. Willoughby said. I guess I must of figured I would one day stop and look around and see what there was to see, never knowing the river was one of the nicest, prettiest things to look at. It was smooth and brown, and it just looked really strong, carrying all kinds of stuff: tree limbs, boxes, pans, even wooden buckets, and just plain old stuff. The thing that got me was it was strong enough to carry all that stuff and it was going someplace. The river was going someplace and not coming back.
But I didn't know nothing about where it was going. And it never mattered none to me before and didn't matter now. I just figured if that river could take that stuff some other place, it sho could take me. How, I didn't know. I didn't swim. "Niggers didn't swim," Mr. Willoughby said. What for? And to tell you the truth, I ain't never had that much water on me all at one time.
So there I was. Done run off as far as I could go. The only other way to go was up. So I just climbed the tallest tree I saw not far from the river, hoping it would hide me for a while. What I didn't think about was the chill, almost cold, but I been chilly before. Being chilly was part of slaving. I didn't know what else to do, where else to go. I didn't think Mr. Willoughby would come after me right away, since there was really no place to go, no place to run, except into the river. And he knew, like I knew, wasn't no slave goin' do that!
I liked it up there in that tree, looking around, seeing things I had never seen before, looking way over there across the river and up the river and down the river, and seeing the treetops on the other side of the house where the woods was. I was seeing way in the distance that I didn't know nothing about, didn't even know it was there, distance, I mean! So I told myself I was never coming down, even if he did send somebody looking for me, calling my name and looking around bushes and stuff. 'Cause for the first time, I could see way in the distance.
Then I told myself out loud I was leaving Mr. Willoughby's place and was goin' find some other place to be, maybe just float on down the river like a piece of wood or something till I stopped or got to that far-off place that I didn't know nothing about.
Just like that I said it, out loud, and meant it, too! Said it so I could hear it in my own ears and didn't care who else heard it either. This was in 1866, maybe '67. I don't really remember 'cause everything kinda ran together, 'cept me. And I was trying to run away, thinking back on it. This almost like asking me what year I was born. Hell, I don't know! I just know I had been slaving for Mr. Willoughby at his place for a long time. I didn't know nothing about what year it was. Hell, when I was slaving, what difference did it make about the year or the month or the day? I was slaving! Everything I knew about the war and the year and stuff like that, I learned after I was on the road away from Mr. Willoughby's place, where everything was always the same.
'Course the way Mr. Willoughby told it, wasn't nothing out there but confusion and people shooting at each other: white folks trying to keep slaves slaves, and other white folks trying to free them. I didn't care what he said 'cause I was goin' find me a place where I could just be—at least that's what I thought at the time.
As far as he, Mr. Willoughby, was concerned, slaving was as natural as the leaves on a tree for niggers like me, and the best thing for them others that wasn't like me. 'Course I didn't know what "them others" meant at the time. Then he said slavery or something like it was everyplace he knew about, and he knew about every place there was. That's what he said!
So I hid up in that tree by the river for what seemed like hours. I could see the river real good and how it just moved all on its own, making a moving hush noise I never heard before, not that it wasn't there, I just never took the time to listen.
I had some food left, too. So I was kinda okay up there looking around. Had that one potato I'd been holding on to and a few peanuts that was left in my pocket. But I wasn't hungry no more. That, being hungry, was the reason all this got started.
I was only doing what other slaves been doing for as long as there was Mr. Willoughby slaves, least that's what the old slaves say all the time and laugh about it. I had slipped out of the cabin and made my way over to the storehouse to get me something to eat. Now the storehouse was up there near Mr. Willoughby's house, on the other side of the overseer's place. Everybody said it was there so he could keep an eye on it. But slaves slipped in and out of that place all the time! Some got caught, got a whupping but wasn't hungry no more, at least not that night. To them it was worth it. But to me, taking a whupping from another man with his belt like I was some child was more than I was goin' put up with. As a slave, I didn't have much choice, I guess, but as a man I did! And I was a man child, a baby, first, before I was a slave, at least that's the way I thought about it.
That night, I slipped in, got me some apples, some cheese, which I'd never had before and didn't know where it came from, some potatoes, which I liked to eat raw, and two pockets full of peanuts from the storehouse. Then got caught by Mr. Willoughby, who proceeded to try and whup me with his belt. Didn't say a word, just took his belt off and grabbed me.
Something in me snapped! I must of dropped everything but this one potato that I held real tight in one hand. I had told myself a long time ago when I was a little boy staying in Mr. Willoughby's house with my mama, I would never let another man, including Mr. Willoughby, whup me with a belt. Like when he whupped old man Elijah! Everybody liked that old man; even Mr. Willoughby knew about everyplace there was said he liked him. But he said old Elijah had a whupping coming, and that was that. Elijah was so proud of how he had lived through all his years of slaving without a speck of trouble. After that whupping, for what nobody seemed to know, he was never the same, just kinda withered away. He seemed to lose everything, his smile, his hair even started to fall out, teeth too, and he walked with a slump from that day on. I said lots of times that when I grow up, Mr. Willoughby was never goin' whup me with his belt, not like that he wasn't. And he didn't!
Before, if something happened and Mr. Willoughby thought I knew something about it, he would just look at me real hard. That's all! And I looked right back at him, maybe not as hard but looked anyway. He must of saw in my eyes that I wasn't like them other slaves. Plus I was my mama's boy!
Maybe he felt he had no choice this time. I was stealing! And anybody got caught stealing got a whupping.
While I was up there in that tree resting and looking around and getting really relaxed and all, I made up my mind what I was goin' do, so there was some comfort in that. Fact is, I got so relaxed I went to sleep. 'Course it was sleep time anyway, and when that time comes 'round, the best thing to do is sleep. Slaving didn't allow but so much sleep time. But for some reason, I woke up, which I never do when sleep time comes. When I kinda turned over just a bit, I saw it. A big boat just sitting there in the middle of the river, misty and strange-looking! It was Mr. Willoughby's boat that had come to pick up all the timber, bales of cotton, and just plain stuff the slaves left at the stacking place.
I got so excited! I didn't know what to do or think. If I was dreaming, I didn't want to wake up 'cause that boat was goin' take me somewhere, like someplace way over there in the distance. Dreaming was the easy part. Then I could just put myself on that boat and be off to someplace where I could just be. If it was real, and I knew it was, then I had to do something, like get on it. So I just had to figure out how to do that.
The moon was being covered and uncovered by the clouds. And every now and then, water would hit the side of the boat and make that slapping sound. It was calling me, telling me to get in that water and come on board. Why it hadn't said that to me before? I don't know. Guess I wasn't listening.
While the moon was behind one of them clouds, I got me two logs, one under each arm, and started wading out toward that boat. When I couldn't touch the bottom no more, I really got scared, 'cause something was trying to push me right pass the boat. But when I thought about all that water around me and what I was doing, I really got scared and started kicking and aiming myself toward that boat. I didn't know what else to do or what would happen once I got on that boat. What really got to me was I really didn't know what happened to niggers like me when their white folks wasn't around to talk for 'em.
And when I heard gunshots ... I tell you, I knew it was just a matter of time before he got me. I couldn't or didn't want to look back 'cause I didn't want to see what was behind me. I didn't know if Mr. Willoughby was aiming that old shotgun at me or what. That thing had been sitting around for a long time, and I never knowed him to use it. I thought if he was trying to use that old shotgun, ain't no telling what might happen. 'Course sometimes he did carry a pistol on his belt, but I never seen him use that either.
That's when I knew I had to make it to that boat. Sometimes I think I was supposed to make it, like nothing happens that ain't supposed to. Mr. Willoughby said if it was supposed to be, it was goin' be. Ain't nothing to be done about it. I remember when he said it, 'cause it sounded so strange.
"Levy, whatever is going to happen is going to happen. You can't make something happen that ain't suppose to. That's why you will always belong to me. Now don't that make sense?"
I didn't answer. I remember that. I don't remember if I ever said anything back to him. Old slaves always said it was best to keep quiet and say nothing.
"Sure it does. Things are the way things are." He had smiled and rode off, like he had said something important. But sometimes I didn't know what to think—why I made it, I mean! Was it suppose to happen?
That boat was goin' take me away forever. I never been anywhere, seen nothing, done nothing, 'cept what Mr. Willoughby and them others told me to do and say. Never even talked to nobody but them that was on his place! Never done nothing by myself either, 'cepting eating, sleeping, working ... nothing really. 'Course getting after some gal, I done that by myself; didn't need nobody else for that!
I had made my choice! What I was doing, plain and simple, was running off, escaping, being a runaway slave! Before this, I ain't never had no thoughts in my head or my heart—it takes both—about being one of them kinda slaves, never. Slaving was all I was suppose to know to do, all I was made for ... to do. That, right there, told me something more than Mr. Willoughby thought! And to tell you the truth, the more I thought about it, the more I thought I knew!
There was a slave that could do everything there was to do, make everything there was to make, grow stuff, cook stuff, tit the babies, empty slop jars, build things. You name it, and there was a slave who could do it, even make babies. Thing was they did it for somebody else and not for themselves and didn't get anything for doing it, no money, no better life, nothing but trouble and more trouble!
No one knew if anyone ever tried to run off from Mr. Willoughby's before. Some would disappear from time to time, but nobody knew why or asked any questions that I knowed about and Mr. Willoughby never said nothing one way or the other. Since he said there was no place to go, everybody just thought them that disappeared was down in the swamp in the slave graveyard.
Me? I never thought much about it. I guess I just figured you born, you slave, then you die. Everybody did the first and last part no matter what: slave, overseer, even Mr. Willoughby! Everybody ended up dead, one way or the other!
What happen between the first and the last part? Mr. Willoughby always told us it was slaving for us. That was what he said! I ain't sure if I believed him back then or not, now that I look back on it. I kinda think I didn't, but what could I do if I didn't? That was the whole thing about it. I think most of us slaves didn't believe much of what was told to us but didn't know or have the gumption to do anything about it. Seem like we was just waiting for it to end.
Somebody told me white folks did the same things slaves did, 'cept it wasn't called slaving, and they got paid. For the life of me, I don't know who told me that. Don't even know what it was called. I didn't find that out till I got up the road a piece, away from Mr. Willoughby.
'Course them Indians did came around, like I said. And they always came right out of the swamp. Guess they wanted us to think they was part of it. Tell you the truth, to me all they did was look funny-like. They wasn't like Mr. Willoughby, and they wasn't like me. They was like their own self, funny-looking skin color and real black hair. But I heard they did do some slaving, too. Didn't know that to be true. I done heard all kinds of stuff since I left Mr. Willoughby's place. Done found out some of it is true, some ain't.
When I finally got myself on that boat and looked around, I didn't know if I was scared 'cause I was away from Mr. Willoughby's place for the first time or what. But then it hit me. I really was away from Mr. Willoughby's place for the first time! That right there showed Mr. Willoughby wasn't always right. So I thought there must be something more Mr. Willoughby didn't want me to know about, and I was goin' find out what it was.
Excerpted from AND FACE THE UNKNOWN by CD Harper Copyright © 2012 by CD Harper. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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