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By Judith A. Dempsey
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2016 Judith A. Dempsey
All rights reserved.
A gray mockingbird sat on the very tip of a tall white pine tree singing her heart out. With each rise in pitch, she fluttered skyward as if propelled by her own melodious song. The old man listened intently as he rocked back and forth on the porch in concert with the bird's song.
His grown daughter, Amie, who sat on the porch steps mending the huge holes in her eight-year old twins' socks, also listened to the bird, enjoying its melodious song.
Both of them were immersed in their own thoughts. Old Joshua Jordan suddenly began to speak.
"That was a wonderful morning," he said aloud.
"What was?" his startled daughter asked.
"When I first really listened to a mockingbird sing. It was a morning much like this one. I had just caught an enormous bull frog at the old pond when I heard the prettiest song in the woods. I stopped and stood still as a statue, captivated by its beautiful voice. Even when it flew off, I stayed, savoring the sheer joy of its music.
"But soon my stillness was shattered by the sound of Uncle Levi's angry voice. I can still hear it rumbling like thunder through the woods even now.
* * *
"Joshua, Joshua Jordan, where is you? What's you doing there, boy?" he demanded, his deep black eyes searching my tormented face for an immediate answer.
Guilt pangs quivered through my whole body. I knew I had to redeem myself quickly, so I held high my squirming prize, "Look, Uncle, I caught this big, old bullfrog. Now we can have him for dinner."
Uncle Levi sighed deeply, "That's fine, Joshua, but where is Captain Bigley's riding boots? Didn't I tell you he'd be needin' them this afternoon?"
I looked at the ground and halfheartedly kicked a stone. I had forgotten my chores again.
Uncle Levi's lips tightened! His forehead furrowed. He stepped forward and grabbed me by the nape of my neck, his strong fingers digging into the flesh, then he shook me as if I were an old rag doll. Thinking perhaps, that would jar my memory.
"What's the matter with you? Didn't I tell you we gotta earn our keep?" Levi's voice softened a little as he said, "You know they sayin' colored folk as lazy as sin since we become free. Well, the day of jubilee has come and gone and we're no better off, 'cept we got a last name and gotta earn our keep. Even Captain Bigley's caught on fast. You'd think he was from this here South, not New York like he says."
Then I heard the door to the big house squeak open. A tall man with a military bearing stepped onto the wide porch. It was Captain Bigley.
"Levi, you got that carriage hooked up yet? I want to leave here by noon," the Captain hollered.
Levi frowned. "No, sir, not yet," he answered.
"Well hurry up, man! I don't want to be getting home after dark. No telling what I'll be running into then!" the Captain bellowed.
"Gonna do it right now," Levi responded. Then he whispered to me, "That Captain Bigley still thinks he's commanding the cavalry."
"What's that, Levi?" the Captain demanded.
"Nothin, sir. Am goin' to get Stormy. He need a good run, he do," Levi answered as he hurried toward the horse stalls.
Just as a colt follows a filly, I followed Uncle Levi into the barn. In one of the stalls stood a beautiful black stallion. He measured fifteen hands tall and was solid as a rock. His coat was smooth as satin and glistened as silver in the sun.
"That Captain Bigley's war horse?" I asked, awe-struck by the beauty of this mammoth creature.
"Sure is," Uncle Levi answered. "This is the very same horse he rode in the Battle of South Mills. When the Captain was made head of the Freedmen's Bureau, he took this horse to New Bern. That's where he met his first wife, Miss Mildred Louise. She was as pretty as a spring flower, but oh, so uppity. She wasn't about to marry no Yankee captain."
Then he added, "It was only when Captain Bigley bought Belhaven and carried Miss Mildred out here that she agreed to marry him."
* * *
Old Joshua stood up and stretched. He stamped his feet on the wooden porch floor. "Got to get the blood moving," he said to his daughter.
"Too much sittin' makes lazy bones." He laughed uproariously. "The cook must have said that to me a thousand times, especially when I stopped washin' them windows at the big house."
"That was some house," he mused, "painted all white with a big front porch just made for rocking chairs. Those columns were two stories tall. Windows were everywhere. Lawd, how I hated washin' them windows. And the fireplaces, just keeping them filled with wood was a job. When the fire got blazin' it was like lookin' straight into hell. Took a heap of doin' just keepin' that place up."
The old man sat back down and rocked slowly back and forth, back and forth. Soon he was asleep. His daughter continued her mending while he slept, dreaming of times past.CHAPTER 2
As the first rays of the sun appeared in the sky, the birds of morning began their raucous song, waking old Joshua out of a fitful sleep. Unable to resume sleeping, Joshua decided to put this time to good use and go fishing. He rubbed his eyes, hunched his back and shook both legs to get the blood flowing again. Then he grabbed his fishing pole and bucket of bait. Still not quite awake he stumbled out the front door onto the porch ... He wasn't going to let his recent retirement stop him from doing the things he most enjoyed, rising early in the morning and going fishing.
Down the wooden steps he went, careful not to make them creak and wake up the others. Today he wanted to fish alone without the twins, whose incessant chatter scared all the fish away.
He crossed the lawn and entered the dirt path that led to the creek. The pine woods were alive with the racket of singing birds. The old man grumbled to himself, "Too much of a good thing. Hope they stop soon. All this noise is giving me a giant headache."
He came to a clearing beside the creek where a man and young boy were already fishing.
"That your boy?" Joshua asked.
"Sure is," the man replied.
"Lucky boy," the old man said.
"Used to fish some with my daddy, but then, that was a long time ago and I was very young." His voice trailed off as if to catch a distant memory.
Old Joshua sat down on the hard ground and tossed his line into the shallow creek. As the ripples fanned out toward the distant shore, Joshua spoke to the man and young boy about his early life.
* * *
It was my Uncle Levi who raised me. One day as he crouched beside the horse he was shoeing, he began to talk about my daddy and mama. He held the horse's hoof between his knees and perfectly positioned the shoe as he spoke.
"Nephew," he said, "at the end of the war Sue Anne and I went to New Bern. That's where we found Adam and Martha, your daddy and mama. We was standin' with a crowd of freed men waitin' for food and clothing. I see this familiar-looking head aways in front of us. My mouth just flew open and out popped, 'Adam, is that you?' The head turned around and sure enough, there was my brother, Adam! We hadn't seen each other for fifteen years, but a man always remembers his own brother. Adam and I just hugged and hugged, tears streaming down our faces. Your daddy had been sold to another planter, Master Oakley, when he was just bout your age, twelve years old. You look a lot like him, too, with your bright eyes, light skin and kinky black hair. You is built like him, too, big feet and broad shoulders."
Levi continued, "I had given up all hope of ever seeing Adam again. I'll never forget the day he was sold off the plantation where we was livin'. Our mama was just awailin'. She pleaded with the master, 'Please don't sale my boy. You promised me you'd set him free.'"
"Then she grasped the master's hand. 'Times change,' he said, as he yanked his hand away."
"The plantation overseer grabbed Mama and pushed her to the ground. He woulda whipped her raw 'cept the master stopped him."
"Mama grieved so," Levi continued, "She was never the same. Sometimes at night I'd hear her cryin'. She hardly ever smiled anymore. Times were hard then. Too hard to be talkin' about."
Uncle Levi stopped and stared off into the distance. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and cleared his throat. For a few minutes he was silent, then he began again, "Joshua, did you know you was the first of our family born free?"
I looked up startled by this bit of news. "Me?" I asked.
"That's right," answered Levi. "Before you, we was all slaves. Your daddy was a slave on Oakley Plantation. He worked with the plantation carpenter, who had a pretty daughter named Martha. Martha was a house slave, but whenever she saw Adam she made eyes at him. Your daddy, Adam, was surprised at this 'cause house slaves think they too good for ordinary workers, like carpenters. But they got to likin' each other and pretty soon they jump the broom. Then your sister, Sarah, come along, just before the war. They was waitin' for you when the Yankees came and burned most of Oakley Plantation. The Yankees told all the slaves they was free."
"Old Master Oakley told all his colored folk to get off his property. They didn't belong to him any more. Now they had to look out for themselves. Adam and Martha heard the Yankees was givin' out food and clothing, so they set out for New Bern."
"But Joshua, as usual you just couldn't wait, so you starts coming right there on the road to New Bern. Your mama had no place to go 'cept a patch of swamp grass, so she lay down right there so you could come. Your Mama Martha said, "She was so happy her tears flowed like a river. She said she cried over and over, 'You is free, you is free, and we is goin' to the promised land.'"
At that point my Uncle Levi sighed deeply and looked straight at me, "Boy, you is lucky, darn lucky."
"Lucky?" I yelled. "You call my daddy and mama dying of cholera lucky?"
Uncle Levi looked down and bit his lip. "No, boy, that wasn't lucky," he says. "But you got Sue Anne and me to look out for you. You is like a son to us."
Then he gives me that look which says, "Don't feel so sorry for yourself, others got it much worse."
He tried to console me by saying, "Look at poor Miss Melinda Mae, since her mama passed with swamp fever and now she's got no one, 'cept Captain Bigley. And the Captain's so busy with the farm he hardly has time for her. That's why he's takin' her into town today. Poor girl, she only has your sister, Sarah, and Cook to look out for her."
* * *
I knew what he meant, but I still felt sorry for myself," old Joshua said.
Startled by a strong tug on his fishing line, he jerked the pole back and retrieved a large squirming bass.
"Nice size," said the man.
"Sure is," answered the old man as he removed the hook from the bass' mouth. Then he tenuously rose from the creek bank. "Thanks for listening," he said.
"My pleasure," the man replied.
The old man retraced his steps through the woods, crossed the lawn and walked wearily into the house, worn out by his early morning excursion and the telling of his tale.
"Gone fishing again?" asked his grown daughter, Amie, as she placed his breakfast before him.
"Yup, and caught a big bass, too," replied Joshua as he buttered his warn toast.CHAPTER 3
Stately loblolly pines cast their dark shadows over a bed of soft pine needles. Old Joshua sat on the stump of what was once a magnificent conifer. He was filleting the fish he had caught in the morning when the peace of the moment was suddenly shattered by the slamming of the screen door, first once, then twice.
"The twins is coming," the old man told himself.
Soon two wide-eyed youngsters appeared before him, breathless from their raucous race across the yard, and demanded his immediate attention.
They looked like two peas in a pod with shiney brown faces, broad beaming smiles, and teeth missing in exactly the same places. Their shirt tails hung out and their blue jeans had patches sewn over the knees where holes had worn through.
Their temperaments were as opposite as night is from day. Matthew was the believer, fully confident that everything he was told by anyone was absolutely the gospel truth.
Marcus, on the other hand, was a doubter. He questioned everything and everyone. He never trusted anything he was told, and needed convincing evidence, even to accept the tiniest truth.
"Tell 'im, Gramps," begged Matthew, "tell 'im you did too see the Swamp Woman. He says you didn't 'cause there ain't no such thing as a Swamp Woman."
"There ain't, is there, Gramps?" demanded a determined Marcus.
"Oh, but there was, Marcus. I saw her many years ago when I was just a little older than you two," answered old Joshua.
With that bit of news Marcus begin to interrogate his grandfather. "How come you seen her?" asked Marcus. "Did she really live in the swamp? Why did you go into the swamp? Weren't you scared of all the swamp critters?"
Old Joshua smiled and held up his hand in an effort to silence his inquisitive grandson.
"If you boys will just sit a minute, I'll tell you why I had to go into the swamp to find the Swamp Woman," he said.
The boys sat quietly on the soft pine needles, turning their eager young faces toward their grandfather.
Old Joshua settled himself on the large log and listened to the many sounds echoing through loblolly pines above him. As he heard the doves' mournful call, a deep sadness filled his soul.
* * *
"When I was twelve years old," he began; "I started working with my Uncle Levi in his blacksmith shop. He was responsible for all the care of the horses on the Bigley farm. One day Captain Bigley wanted his horse hitched up to the buggy so he could ride to town. He was taking his ten year-old daughter, Melinda Mae, with him."
"Uncle Levi tried to hitch up Stormy, Captain Bigley's war horse, to the buggy. Stormy didn't wanta be hitched. He fretted and whined the whole time. I had to hold him still while Uncle Levi attached the buggy. When Stormy was finally ready, Levi told me to take him up to the big house and wait for Captain Bigley and Melinda Mae."
"'Hold tight to his halter. I don't want him getting' away,' my uncle warned."
"Stormy was a handsome stallion, full of spirit. He didn't like being hitched to the buggy, so he fussed and snorted. Then he refused to budge. Uncle Levi cracked the whip and Stormy took off with me holding on for dear life. After a short sprint he settled down."
"I was able to lead him to the front of the big house and wait for the captain and his daughter, Melinda Mae. Stormy got mighty restless once again. Something was definitely irritating him. He pawed the ground, tossed his head in the air and whined. Something wasn't right and he knew it."
"When Melinda Mae came out of the big house. She looked so pretty in her blue cotton dress, long blonde curls and flowered sun bonnet. I was wishing her mama could see her. As soon as Melinda started to climb into the buggy, Stormy bolted, like he'd been hit by lighting. Miss Melinda fell back and cracked her head on the porch steps."
"She put her hand to the back of her head and start screaming, 'My head, my head, it's bleeding.' Suddenly she fainted."
"Captain Bigley heard the commotion and came tearing out the front door. When he sees Miss Melinda lyin' motionless in the dirt, he starts yellin' at me. 'Boy, what ya done!'" "I was so scared; I was stuck to the ground like I was glued. I couldn't move."
"Uncle Levi came running from the barn. He was yelling at me, too. 'Joshua, get that horse.'"
"The sound of his voice startled me out of my stupor. I started running after Stormy. He made it clear to the smokehouse. There he was standing with his eyes all bugged out and just a snortin'. When I grabbed hold of his halter, I noticed blood all over the buggy's wheels. I knew the buggy musta run over something. I walked back up to the big house and there in the dirt lay a large cottonmouth. It was dead. Its head had been crushed by the iron wheels of the buggy."
"By now, Stormy had calmed down and I was able to lead him back to the house."
"Miss Melinda was gone but there was blood all over the porch steps. Somehow I felt that I was to blame for what happened."
Excerpted from Joshua's Journey by Judith A. Dempsey. Copyright © 2016 Judith A. Dempsey. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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