Lit­tle Brier

New England Review - - Music - Dennis Mcfad­den

The way the sun came beat­ing down made him feel like the iron on the anvil. He was anx­ious and hur­ried, and the trickle of sweat inch­ing down the mid­dle of his back didn’t help. Nor did his pal Henry, the old man who’d taught him pa­tience, for still there were times when Hen brought him to the edge of his pa­tience, and then pushed him over. That was the thing about Hen—when any given sit­u­a­tion truly called for haste, you could be sure that call would fall on deaf ears. Fudge stopped on the road, turn­ing to watch Hen, who’d stopped to pee. There was a time to bend in the wind, there was a time to stiffen your back­bone, a dis­tinc­tion lost on his pal. “Move it, Hen,” Fudge said. “We gonna see what that boy up to, we got to get there ’fore the sun go down.” It wasn’t much past noon.

“What that boy up to,” said Hen, re­sum­ing his shuf­fle, “what that boy up to.”

An hour ear­lier, pass­ing by on his way home to Lit­tle Brier af­ter clos­ing up his boot shop, Fudge had spot­ted a horse, ap­par­ently one of Au­gus­tus Hamil­ton’s Mor­gans, teth­ered out be­hind the Birch­woods school­house, in what seemed to be at­tempted con­ceal­ment. A young black man, Au­gus­tus had no earthly busi­ness in the white chil­dren’s school­house, and Fudge feared the worst—es­pe­cially since a few days ear­lier he’d seen him talk­ing to Miss Eva, the young white school teacher, on Harts­grove’s Main Street, in the mid­dle of the town, in front of God and the whole white world. Fudge hadn’t sur­vived thir­tyeight years as a free black man with­out a nat­u­ral sense of dan­ger as keen as any bee’s.

It was a swel­ter­ing sum­mer day. Fudge took off his tat­tered straw hat, wav­ing it at his sweaty face, wait­ing. Hen caught up in his own good time, hav­ing barely bro­ken a sweat, his floppy old felt hat still com­fort­ably atop his head. “Your mama ever told you you was slower’n a one-legged tur­tle?” said Fudge.

He glimpsed a glim­mer of hurt in the old man’s eyes, a leath­ery face frosted white with whisker stub­ble. “Man gotta pee when a man gotta pee,” Hen said. “Man gotta pee ev­ery two min­utes whole way down the road?” “Old man do,” said Hen. “You find out one day.” They moved on, step­ping on their shad­ows, Fudge walk­ing slower now so Hen could keep up. The ci­cadas buzzed and droned in the woods close by the road, but the birds were too hot to fuss, the woods were still, even the gnats and horse­flies keep­ing out of the sun. When the school­house came into view, there stood the black Mor­gan, the older, gen­tler of the pair, the horse Au­gus­tus called

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Jupiter, the one he used as a sad­dle horse. He was not teth­ered to the post in front but sus­pi­ciously to a bush out back. Fudge took Hen’s arm. “Looky there,” he said with a mourn­ful grunt. “What that boy up to,” said Hen. Fudge re­con­noi­tered. “Okay—we go over be­hind the big oak there, then make us a bee­line to the rock on the other side. Get over to the cor­ner, we can sneak on up to the win­dow. Ready?”

Fudge dashed crouch­ing to the oak, where he hes­i­tated, then sprinted, still crouch­ing, to­ward the big rock. He turned. There was Hen, am­bling up­right straight across the yard to­ward the school. “Dang it, Hen.”

Hen walked up to the open win­dow and looked in. “What you up to, boy?” he said.

Fudge came up be­side him. In­side the school­room Au­gus­tus looked up, brow raised in sur­prise, which did lit­tle to raise his eye­lids—his eyes were con­stant slits. A hand­some young man, his bur­nished skin a per­fect fit for the mus­cles of his face, he was sit­ting on a chil­dren’s bench, lanky legs nearly up to his chin, a stub of chalk in his hand, slate on one knee, his hat—a nar­row-brimmed black derby—on the other. The boy had man­ners. At the black­board stood Miss Eva, frown­ing out from be­hind the twin cur­tains of brown hair that tried to hide her face—loose, flow­ing hair, not piled upon her head as it nor­mally was. “Learn­ing my A-B-C’S,” said Au­gus­tus, a pic­ture of in­no­cence. Miss Eva came to­ward the two older men in the win­dow, the boards of the floor click­ing be­neath her airy step. “Not all dark­ies are shift­less,” she said in a voice too high and anx­ious to carry the au­thor­ity it wished. “Not all dark­ies are lazy.” She swung the shut­ter shut, though not be­fore they saw the flush on her face, nearly hid­den be­hind her hair.

“Aim­ing to bet­ter him­self,” Fudge said, the last two words rolling off his tongue like a cut of bad to­bacco. He, Hen, and Lucindy, Fudge’s wife, were sit­ting in front of his cabin in Lit­tle Brier shelling corn for the hens, a scat­ter­ing of which strut­ted and pecked im­pe­ri­ously around them. “Can’t blame the boy want­ing to bet­ter him­self,” said Lucindy. “You sup­pose he ain’t aim­ing to bet­ter Miss Eva in the process?” Lucindy looked up from the long corn cob in her hands. “Fud­geon Van Pelt, you hush up that mouth. Ain’t all men think like you do, from some­wheres down in the ditch.”

“That boy do, or I miss my guess,” said Fudge. Tak­ing another ear from the bas­ket, he slipped his thumb into a slit, into the fair silky hair. From the swimming hole came the sounds of whoops and splashes, half the pop­u­la­tion of Lit­tle Brier—in­clud­ing Napoleon and Belle, Fudge’s boy and girl—seek­ing re­lief from the swel­ter in the cool creek wa­ters. Hen was still peel­ing his first ear of corn as Fudge twisted his third, ker­nels rat­tling into the tin basin on the ground be­tween them. “That boy’s up to no good.”

“What you think, Hen?” said Lucindy.

Hen shrugged, rest­ing his half-peeled cob on his knee. Fudge said, “Them crack­ers think ’Gus­tus sniff­ing around a white woman— even one mousy as what Miss Eva is—then they end up sniff­ing around Lit­tle Brier. And that’s some­thing we can’t use.”

Hen and Lucindy took that into ac­count, the only sound for the next few mo­ments that of ker­nels pep­per­ing tin, the odd shout and splash from the creek. The last time white folks came sniff­ing around was well re­mem­bered af­ter fif­teen years, the fires and the wail­ing, ev­ery shack in the set­tle­ment burned to the ground. A stolen pig had been found in one of the shacks, and Fudge could still feel the heat on his face, wet, blis­ter­ing heat, watch­ing the flames, watch­ing the red em­bers shoot and twist out over the black creek wa­ters.

Hen started twist­ing his cob, one ker­nel drop­ping at a time. Fudge looked at Lucindy frown­ing down at the cob in her own hands. She was a tall, hand­some woman, wide shoul­ders, glow­ing with sweat in the heat, her indigo work dress droop­ing be­tween her thighs as she leaned over the basin. He loved how the red rag tied in her hair made her cheek­bones shine. She looked up. “What if he just learn­ing his A-B-C’S like he say?” “All they got to do is think he sniff­ing around,” Fudge said. “You ain’t never liked that boy,” said Hen. “No,” said Fudge. “I ain’t.” Au­gus­tus Hamil­ton had ap­peared in Lit­tle Brier the spring be­fore, the warm, wet spring of 1856, build­ing him­self a cabin, pur­chas­ing him­self a wagon and a brace of fine, black Mor­gans, find­ing him­self work as a team­ster. Where he got the cap­i­tal, no­body knew. Fudge had said all along the boy didn’t talk like a Yan­kee, he’d talked to plenty a Yan­kee, and so he doubted Au­gus­tus’s claim that he was a free Ne­gro from Con­necti­cut, his cer­tifi­cate of free­dom, which he kept in a leather pouch strapped to his leg, notwith­stand­ing. Where were his fam­ily, his friends? But it was the eyes that cinched it. Au­gus­tus’s eyes never seemed to open all the way, ob­vi­ously, in Fudge’s mind, hid­ing some­thing be­hind them. And his smile that all the girls loved—in­clud­ing his own Belle, just eight—the white teeth, the lifted lip, still amounted to noth­ing more, in Fudge’s eye, than a fancy sneer.

“Ain’t got noth­ing to do with the wrestling he al­ways beat you in, or the rac­ing he al­ways fastest at, or the fish he al­ways catch­ing that’s big­ger’n what you ever catch,” Lucindy said. “No,” Fudge said. “It ain’t.” Hen said, “First time they rassled, never seen a man flat on his back so fast.” “Ain’t no jok­ing mat­ter,” said Fudge. “Real trou­ble brew­ing.” “Leas’ you hand­somer,” Lucindy said, and Hen laughed. Noth­ing slow about the man when it came to laugh­ing, laugh wrin­kles on the back of his neck to prove it, from years throw­ing back his head. Hen’s laugh al­ways made Lucindy laugh too.

“Ain’t funny,” said Fudge, but he smiled a lit­tle, aware of his own looks, bald­ing head, skinny chin, bony cheeks, the prodi­gious gap be­tween his front teeth. The smile faded quickly, and he waited, pa­tiently shelling his corn, watch­ing

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the ker­nels bounce on tin, lis­ten­ing to his chil­dren shout­ing and splash­ing in Lit­tle Brier Creek, the laugh­ter of his wife and friend wind­ing down, till it was all used up.

Yel­low Char­lie was the name of the pi­o­neer who’d founded Lit­tle Brier some forty years be­fore, al­beit with no in­ten­tion of do­ing so. A mongrel, part Ori­en­tal, part white, part col­ored, Yel­low Char­lie had been some­thing of a her­mit, build­ing a shack on the east bank of the Lit­tle Brier, at the edge of the Penn­syl­va­nia wilder­ness. The Lit­tle Brier flowed into Pot­ters Creek, which flowed through the heart of Harts­grove, the town that he wished to avoid. He dis­liked peo­ple, en­gag­ing with them only when he had to, as when he wheeled his bar­row into town to sell the stone coal he picked from the creek beds for money for flour and other items he couldn’t right­fully grow, kill, or steal on his own. He’d ar­rived at Lit­tle Brier with a young col­ored boy named Henry Wester­man whom he’d come across a few years ear­lier when Hen was only a small boy—no­body knew his age for sure—in an iso­lated cabin back east in Ly­coming County af­ter his fam­ily had been mur­dered by a rogue Seneca In­dian called Sassy John. The boy had sur­vived by pre­tend­ing to be dead, the story went, and for years folks won­dered if he’d re­ally been pre­tend­ing at all. As to why a man like Char­lie would take in an or­phan in the first place was any­body’s guess, though few be­lieved the good­ness of his heart had any­thing to do with it. Most be­lieved that he’d looked upon it as the pil­fer­ing of a use­ful ob­ject. They be­lieved in fact that it was Yel­low Char­lie’s hard driv­ing of the boy in his younger years that ac­counted for Hen’s lazi­ness as an old man. He’d sim­ply been worn out.

Fudge Van Pelt him­self had come to Harts­grove some twenty years be­fore, af­ter learn­ing from an over­land team­ster that Harts­grove was in need of a boot­maker just as he was near­ing the end of his ap­pren­tice­ship in Har­ris­burg. Fudge had been born a free man, his fam­ily hav­ing been given their free­dom by Squire Brown of Ch­ester County two years be­fore his birth. Af­ter he’d set­tled in Harts­grove with his new bride, Lucindy, he’d soon dis­cov­ered Lit­tle Brier— where a num­ber of other col­ored fam­i­lies had con­gre­gated by then—and just as quickly re­set­tled there. It was a peace­ful place, among the wil­lows along the banks of the creek, a col­lec­tion of tilt­ing lit­tle shacks and shanties, an easy trot to Harts­grove, out of sight, out of mind.

Dr. Means came into Fudge’s shop the next day, a pair of bro­gans be­neath his arm. He was a white man, small and friendly, pos­sessed of a red goa­tee and an in­fec­tious en­thu­si­asm that in­cluded a habit of thrust­ing one or both of his hands be­fore him, thumbs up. One of Fudge’s ear­li­est cus­tomers, he and Fudge had grad­u­ally be­come friends. Even more grad­u­ally, they’d be­come col­leagues. The doc­tor was a Quaker, one of Harts­grove’s few, and a strict abo­li­tion­ist—one of Harts­grove’s even fewer. “Good morn­ing, Fud­geon—how’s the back?” Fudge looked up from his lap­stone. “Mus­tard wa­ter work­ing pretty good, Doc.”

“I was won­der­ing if you could re­pair these for me.” Fudge took the shoes; they looked as good as new. Prob­a­bly were as good as new, Fudge hav­ing crafted them for the doc­tor the year be­fore, and never hav­ing seen them on his feet. He took a rasp file from the row of tools hang­ing on the wall above his bench, idly ap­ply­ing it to a heel. Means looked around the lit­tle shop, a small room in the back of the Amer­i­can Ho­tel, then out the door, where Hen sat doz­ing in his boot­black chair. No one was in the cor­ri­dor. Even so, he low­ered his voice. “How’s ev­ery­thing out Lit­tle Brier way?” Fudge of­fered a shrug, a ques­tion creas­ing his brow. “There’s talk,” Means said. “Bad talk.” “Bad talk ain’t good.” “Raises con­cerns about the safety of the cargo.” Fudge swiped at the heel with the tool. “I been think­ing along them same lines.”

“Not just the cargo. I’d worry for that boy, Au­gus­tus. And for you and Hen as well.” “Let me have a talk with the boy.” “You talk to him.” “See if I can’t straighten this here thing out.” “Cast your magic spell. Use your sil­ver tongue.” At that the two men laughed, un­con­vinc­ingly, as the doc­tor took his leave.

Down in the lobby and bar­room of the ho­tel, voices hummed and chat­tered. White folks couldn’t be both­ered with Lit­tle Brier. They never set foot in the set­tle­ment just a lit­tle north­east of their town, with the one flam­ing ex­cep­tion some fif­teen years ear­lier, and that had in­volved only the sher­iff and his ruf­fi­ans. White folks were just as pleased to have their black folks out of sight, to have them ap­pear only when needed, to not have to think about them, nor about the prob­lems they’d cre­ated, prob­lems like abo­li­tion­ists and states’ rights and the Mis­souri Com­pro­mise and bleed­ing Kansas. Prob­lems point­ing to­ward a whole lot of trou­ble brew­ing. White folks, Fudge knew, would be just as pleased if black folks didn’t ex­ist at all, ex­cept maybe when they needed a boot made or a bale toted or a sty mucked out or a spit­toon scrubbed.

White folks let Lit­tle Brier be. They didn’t want to know what went on there.

Fudge had seen run­away slaves run down in Har­ris­burg, and he’d seen what hap­pened to them, one un­for­tu­nate nig­ger in par­tic­u­lar, his black skin in shreds and tat­ters, his blood wash­ing the gut­ter. Fudge was aware of the ways of the world, and when Dr. Means had first ap­proached him, he’d de­cided to do some­thing about it. Now more than ever, white folks not want­ing to know what went on in Lit­tle Brier was a good thing.

And along came Au­gus­tus Hamil­ton, aim­ing to spoil a good thing.

Night had set­tled over Lit­tle Brier, the only sounds the rip­ple of the creek, the hoot of the owl, the odd nick­er­ings and low­ings and bark­ings of rest­less pets

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and live­stock. Fudge sat out­side his cabin watch­ing the half moon climb the sky through the branches and leaves over­head. Down through the trees he could see the fire Au­gus­tus Hamil­ton had built in front of his shack. The boy liked his fires, big, an­gry fires. Some­times the young peo­ple gath­ered around them in the evenings, laugh­ing and singing, as they had tonight—foolish, foolish chil­dren, cel­e­brat­ing fire on a night so hot—but it was late and they had all gone home to their beds, Napoleon and Belle among them, al­ready asleep in the cabin be­hind Fudge, and Au­gus­tus sat alone. Fudge sensed that this was his pref­er­ence, soli­tude, the con­di­tion best suited to hid­ing what­ever it was he had to hide.

Au­gus­tus looked up as a twig snapped be­neath Fudge’s boot. “Up past your bed­time, old man.” He gave a smile-sneer, eyes nar­row in the flickering fire­light. “We got to talk,” said Fudge. Au­gus­tus gave a grand ges­ture. “Pull up a stump.” Fudge sat. Rubbed his knees, looked across the fire at the boy. “Miss Eva,” he said.

Au­gus­tus glared. “Man can’t learn his A-B-C’S? Man can’t bet­ter his own self?”

“Les­son num­ber one,” Fudge said. “Man’s a whole lot bet­ter off with his balls still on him.” Au­gus­tus said noth­ing, his stare go­ing blacker. “You keep sniff­ing ’round that white girl, you ain’t gonna have no balls to call your own. Ain’t noth­ing bet­ter off about that.” Fudge told him it didn’t mat­ter if he was only af­ter learn­ing; what mat­tered was what the crack­ers in Harts­grove would think, the crack­ers who loafed all day down at Cap­tain Al­corn’s dis­tillery on the Red Bank, the crack­ers who were ig­no­rant them­selves and didn’t hold the value of ed­u­ca­tion in much re­gard, the crack­ers who burnt down Lit­tle Brier once be­fore and who wouldn’t be­lieve for a minute that a black man was try­ing to bet­ter him­self, only that a nig­ger was try­ing to get into a white girl’s snatch. Then a num­ber of them would see that he had no cause to, never again. “It ain’t like that,” Au­gus­tus said. “That’s ex­actly what it’s like.” “She ain’t like that,” said Au­gus­tus. Those four words, the look on the face of the boy who said them, caused the clouds to part in Fudge’s mind, caused the sweat to break out on his face—the boy was in love. The dun­der­headed young fool had fallen for a white girl. “You sweet on that girl.” Au­gus­tus flung another branch into the fire. “She oughta set you in the cor­ner with that dunce cap on your head,” Fudge said. “Why can’t you just leave us be?” “I ain’t gotta tell you that,” Fudge said. “You al­ready know that. Any nig­ger know that.” When Au­gus­tus didn’t say any­thing, Fudge told him any­way, told him ev­ery­thing he al­ready knew: His balls were the least of it, his neck was too. Strong, healthy blacks in their prime were valu­able com­modi­ties, li­able to be

kid­napped and sold into slav­ery, any cer­tifi­cate of free­dom only good for as long as it took the sher­iff to strike a match. He told him what he al­ready knew, and he told it with rel­ish, for he had Au­gus­tus in a head­lock now and he was pour­ing it on, go­ing for the pin, the only dif­fer­ence be­tween this and the Sun­day af­ter­noon matches—in ev­ery one of which the younger man had come out on top—be­ing that there was no crowd of neigh­bors gath­ered around, cheer­ing. That and a lit­tle less sweat. Fudge went on. Folks would no­tice, he said. Folks weren’t blind. Folks had al­ready no­ticed. He told him it was bring­ing at­ten­tion to Lit­tle Brier and that there were things go­ing on that it would be­hoove the black folks of Lit­tle Brier for the white folks of Harts­grove not to know about. At that, the slits of Au­gus­tus’s eyes opened up. “What things?” “Things you got no need to know about,” said Fudge. The eyes nar­rowed again. Un­like ev­ery­thing else Fudge had told him, this was some­thing Au­gus­tus hadn’t known—that he was ex­cluded, an out­sider, that there were things hap­pen­ing in his set­tle­ment about which he was be­ing kept in the dark—and Fudge, ig­nor­ing a twinge of sym­pa­thy, pressed his ad­van­tage. Au­gus­tus had to stay away from the girl. Sim­ple as that. He had to stop slip­ping around with Miss Eva and he had to stop now. For his own good, as well as for that of the set­tle­ment. What kind of a woman was she any­ways, slip­ping around with a man, not even her own kind, be­hind the backs of her own kind, be­hind her own papa’s back—what kind of a woman car­ries on like that, a woman who was sup­posed to be school­ing lit­tle white chil­dren to be moral and up­right?

“Shut your mouth,” Au­gus­tus said, fire in the slits of his eyes. “She ain’t like that. You don’t know noth­ing about the woman, so shut your mouth.”

The fire popped and they watched a scat­ter­ing of em­bers lift the smoke. “Ain’t no good can come out of it,” Fudge said.

They watched the smoke till the em­bers were gone. “Her daddy whips her,” Au­gus­tus said. “Whips her bad.” Fudge could see the chest of the young man heave. “She knows what it’s like to be a nig­ger, what it’s like to be owned by some­body else.”

Fudge nod­ded at the fire. He said, “Mr. Free Ne­gro from Con­necti­cut. How you know what that’s like?”

Some­times the nights were so still it seemed to Fudge, ly­ing in his bed be­side Lucindy breath­ing, as though the wa­ters of the Lit­tle Brier were flow­ing just out­side his win­dow, some­times closer, some­times be­neath the very ropes of his bed, and in his dream he felt the mo­tion of the run­ning wa­ter, and found him­self float­ing down­stream to­ward Pot­ters Creek and Harts­grove. He was con­tent at first, at one with the wa­ter, watch­ing the green hills lift away from the creek, the crows soar in the sky over­head, the fronds of the wil­lows reach out over the banks, un­til, gen­tly drift­ing, he found him­self sud­denly drawn to­ward the wheel of Cook’s Sawmill, then, splash­ing away in a frenzy, to­ward the hid­den hooks of

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the fish­er­men who had ma­te­ri­al­ized there on the banks of the creek just north of town. White. Ev­ery time he dreamed the dream, the faces were turnip white, twisted in grim de­ter­mi­na­tion to hook him, land him, flay him, shred his black skin into tat­ters, fry him up over their fire. Then a scream from a pan­ther in the woods would awaken him, or a shud­der from Lucindy, or Napoleon snor­ing, or lit­tle Belle cough­ing, and he would feel the heat on his face, and he would be watch­ing the ter­ri­ble or­ange flames leap­ing up from the shanties of Lit­tle Brier. Some nights, when the wind through the high branches of the trees con­cealed the sound of the wa­ters, he might find him­self soar­ing with the black crows high over the wooded hills un­til, even­tu­ally, in­evitably, he would be­come en­snared, en­tan­gled in the strings of the kites, and find him­self plum­met­ing again to­ward the grim white faces.

Fudge didn’t go to bed, rest­ing in­stead in the rock­ing chair by the hearth still smol­der­ing from the supper fire. Dr. Means had said a cargo would be de­liv­ered soon, per­haps as early as morn­ing, and he didn’t want to dis­turb Lucindy only to rise in an hour or two when the cargo ar­rived and dis­turb her again. He dozed in the chair, in the sour smell of ashes, watch­ing the room grad­u­ally slip from black to gray, lis­ten­ing to the birds wak­ing in the woods be­yond his door, when fi­nally he started awake at the sound of a voice—the voice of a woman, or a girl, no dis­tin­guish­able words, only an ex­cla­ma­tion of some sort, of sur­prise, anger, maybe fear. Had the cargo ar­rived? He stepped out­side into morn­ing. The dawn was be­gin­ning to lighten the eastern sky above the trees, but the for­est it­self was teem­ing with fog, heaped high and thick over the creek, spilling out through the woods all around. Noth­ing at the trail­head be­hind his house. He glanced to­ward Au­gus­tus’s shanty, but be­yond the near­est trees the fog was im­pen­e­tra­ble. No sign of life, no mo­tion. Ev­ery­thing was still, ex­cept for a sense of the fog slyly stir­ring, lift­ing, shift­ing. Had he dreamed the voice? He went back in­side to the hearth.

It was quiet, the bird sounds suf­fo­cated by the fog, and he dozed again, his thoughts in­fused with the fla­vor of dreams. Be­fore she’d been sent away to the Brook­side Sem­i­nary for Young Ladies, Fudge had sel­dom seen Miss Eva ex­cept in the com­pany of her fa­ther, Cap­tain Al­corn, a stern wi­d­ower with a curled mous­tache, drunk as of­ten as not, who rode a sor­rel horse with a sil­ver mane and a bri­dle or­na­mented with leather straps, balls, and tas­sels. He was a man who was proud of his pos­ses­sions, and Fudge had of­ten seen him with his daugh­ter, rid­ing—she be­side him on the seat of his one-horse shay, or be­hind him on the sor­rel horse, her face averted, her hands grip­ping the can­tle be­fore her—or walk­ing hand in hand on the board side­walk of Main, be­tween his dis­tillery and his foundry. Some­times he saw them in the ho­tel, so­cial­iz­ing on court day, some­times at the camp­ground at the an­nual muster, some­times pic­nick­ing down by the sand spring where the creeks con­verged. Al­ways Fudge was in­vis­i­ble. Al­ways Miss Eva’s face wore a sour, pinched, and painful as­pect—she seemed a most un­happy child. This was the first time Fudge had thought—dreamed—of

Cap­tain Al­corn and Miss Eva, and the sour look on her face melted in his mind into an un­ac­count­able blush as she ap­proached the win­dow of the school­house, Au­gus­tus on the lit­tle bench be­hind her, knees nearly up to his chin.

The sweat broke out of his face just be­fore he heard the voice, a pre­mo­ni­tion per­haps, fol­lowed by another voice, softly call­ing. The cargo.

Step­ping out­side, he saw Hen sham­bling up through the fog. Fudge waited, the older man tak­ing his time, mea­sur­ing his steps, and Fudge heard the creek wa­ters rip­ple in his ear and felt the rip­ple in his chest at the thought of the hid­den hooks. They walked with­out a word back to the trail­head, where, emerg­ing from the fog and the woods, was Si­las Mckay, a white man from Har­mony Mills, lead­ing two young blacks, a man and wife, scarcely more than chil­dren, both dressed in lit­tle more than rags. Two Vir­ginia hams, the cargo Dr. Means had promised.

Mckay, a big man in a baggy blue waist­coat, in­tro­duced the ru­n­aways, Luke and Mary, then took his leave, clasp­ing Fudge’s hand warmly, then Hen’s, turn­ing and van­ish­ing again into the fog, back up the trail to the Cool­brook Road where his wagon would be wait­ing in the trees, then south, home to Har­mony Mills and sleep. He seemed to Fudge like a tol­er­a­ble white man, and it was odd to re­al­ize that this spot, the trail­head be­hind his cabin, was the only place on the face of the earth where he had ever seen the man, and the only place he likely ever would.

Luke was a lanky young man, pos­sessed of a small nose on a prayer­ful face, all mus­cle and bones, no pick­ings on him at all, and his wife, Mary, was even skin­nier, her jaw slack with weari­ness, her large white eyes and large hands empty and want­ing. Fudge said they must be tired, Hen said they must be hun­gry, and Luke said they were both. Fudge turned to take them in­side where they would eat and sleep, where they could rest un­til af­ter dark when he and Hen would move them north, fur­ther north on their jour­ney, de­liver them up to the Deer Run sta­tion near Su­gar­grove.

Hen was the first to see her. See­ing him start, Fudge looked: There, wisps of fog all around her, stood Miss Eva, just be­yond the trail­head at the edge of the woods, like a ghost her­self in the mist. There was a flash of white, a glimpse of light from be­hind the cur­tains of hair hid­ing her face as she threw back her head, her arm ris­ing, a fin­ger point­ing straight at Fudge, Hen, and the two young ru­n­aways. In an in­stant she was gone, swal­lowed by the fog. Hen was the first to give chase. He dashed off to­ward where Miss Eva had van­ished, leav­ing Fudge frozen for a mo­ment with the ru­n­aways.

Fudge quickly fol­lowed. The woods were darker than the clear­ing by the cabin, the mist was damp in his nos­trils, wet on his face, and he ran, crash­ing through the un­der­growth, un­able to see more than a few yards ahead, a few trees be­fore him, scarcely able to keep the heels of Hen in sight. A minute or two later, he caught up to his com­pan­ion, who had stopped. Fudge started to speak,

Dennis Mcfad­den

but Hen held up his hand. “Shush—lis­ten.”

Noth­ing but si­lence, their la­bored breath­ing, a slight moan of breeze, the muf­fled war­ble of a bird. No sound of run­ning feet. “She gone to ground,” Hen said. “Or she faster’n a scalded pussy,” said Fudge. They lis­tened another mo­ment more, then, out of breath, he said to Hen, “When you got so quick? Never seen you move so quick be­fore.” Hen caught his own breath, giv­ing a solemn nod. “Al­ways been quick.” Foot­steps crash­ing be­hind them, Au­gus­tus burst­ing out of the mist. “Where she at?” he said. Hen shrugged. “Gone,” Fudge said. “What she see?” said Au­gus­tus. Hen shook his head. Fudge said, “Seen some­thing she shouldn’t of saw.” Au­gus­tus was scarcely breath­ing hard. He rolled his head to­ward the foggy trees, the canopy of gloom over­head.

Fudge said, “You brung her here? Af­ter what I done told you? You brung her here?”

“I ain’t brung no­body here,” said Au­gus­tus, frown­ing down at the two older men. “Then what she do­ing here?” “Run­ning away,” Au­gus­tus said. “Told me she run­ning away from her papa. She show up, mid­dle of the god­damn night—ain’t noth­ing I can do ’bout that.” “Run­ning away?” said Hen. The three men stood still, the young man, the old man, and Fudge in the mid­dle, look­ing from one to the other, as the fog seemed to lift, fresh light fil­ter­ing in. Off through the trees, some­thing crashed through the brush, but they could tell from the sound it was a smaller an­i­mal. “Damn,” said Fudge, his bony cheeks be­gin­ning to lift just a lit­tle.

Hen smiled big­ger. “Run her up north with the cargo, she want to run away.”

Fudge said, “First-class fix­ings for the young white lady—back of a wagon un­der­neath a load of straw and ma­nure.”

Hen threw back his head and laughed. “When she ain’t walk­ing down a trail in the black and rain, trip­ping over roots, shoo­ing off wolfs.” “Fling­ing rat­tlesnakes out of lofts.” “Get­ting lost in a swamp whole way up to her bus­tle.” Au­gus­tus stared through his half-closed eyes. “Glad you gen­tle­mens ain’t lost your sense of hu­mor. You done yet?” “Gots to laugh, young man,” said Hen, “else you just end up cry­ing.” Fudge took a breath, ex­hal­ing the last bit of amuse­ment. “Now what?” “I know where she prob­a­bly head to,” Au­gus­tus said. “I’ll find her. She lis­ten to me. I can make her see what’s right, make sure she don’t tell no­body noth­ing.”

All Fudge could see was the raised fin­ger point­ing in the mist, a ghostly

specter of ac­cu­sa­tion. Of doom. He said, “Cap’n Al­corn bring a whole lot of hurtin’ down on this place.”

At that they nod­ded in uni­son, as if bow­ing their heads in prayer.

By the time the sun had seared away the morn­ing fog, Luke and Mary were heaped to­gether in Napoleon’s bed, sleep­ing like stones, their bel­lies full of hot­cakes and mo­lasses, un­aware that they were in any par­tic­u­lar jeop­ardy be­yond that which they faced ev­ery day. Fudge had taken pre­cau­tions. Napoleon, bored, scratch­ing ran­dom marks in the dirt with a stick on the Cool­brook Road, wish­ing he could form them into words, was watch­ing and lis­ten­ing for any sign of hos­tile traf­fic, his ram’s horn un­der his arm, his sis­ter down the Lit­tle Brier Road at the far edge of earshot, equally bored, equally vig­i­lant. Fudge was in his shop in the back of the Amer­i­can Ho­tel in Harts­grove, un­able to con­cen­trate on his work, sweat drip­ping from his face with irk­some reg­u­lar­ity onto the leather spread over his lap­stone. With equally irk­some reg­u­lar­ity he stepped out to Hen’s boot­black chair, where Hen seemed calm, a calm be­fore a storm, Fudge’s ears buzzing, strain­ing to sift through the many con­ver­sa­tions tak­ing place at once in the lobby and bar­room be­yond, keen to latch on to such words as Eva, or Al­corn, or miss­ing. Or Au­gus­tus, or slave, or run­away. At­tuned as well to hos­tile glances.

He paced for a while, four steps from the bench to the shelf and back, back and forth, un­cer­tain he could out­last the day. He sat upon his bench, but didn’t reach for his tools. He thought of Lucindy’s fa­ther. John Ja­cob John­son had been dead for five years, and Fudge re­mem­bered him, a big man, size four­teen shoe, the only man who could stack three bar­rels of flour atop one another at the Har­ris­burg gro­cery store where such stack­ing was done for sport. Young Fud­geon was greatly im­pressed. And ner­vous, to be ask­ing such a great, loud man for his beloved daugh­ter’s hand in mar­riage. That day, the day he planned to ask, had been much like this one, hot af­ter a morn­ing fog, the oc­ca­sion of a fam­ily pic­nic in the yard. And the dog. The mem­ory of John Ja­cob John­son was for­ever linked to the dog. That and the taste of the fried chicken, a taste Fudge could sum­mon to his tongue at any time, pre­pared by Lucindy’s mother from a recipe she took with her to her grave—but­ter­milk was in­volved, and ginger and clove. The dog was named Asher. He be­longed to Lucindy’s fa­ther, who by all ac­counts was quite fond of him. But dur­ing the course of the gath­er­ing, some­thing had irked the dog, and he’d nipped at a child, break­ing the skin on her arm, draw­ing blood, and with­out hes­i­ta­tion John Ja­cob had seized Asher by his hind legs—he was not a small dog—and swung him into the side of the barn, dash­ing his brains out. That was the sort of pro­posal day mem­ory that lin­gered.

Hen came into the shop. The taste of but­ter­milk chicken, a taste Fudge had never again en­joyed af­ter that day, set­tled over his tongue, drift­ing up into his eyes. “What that boy up to,” Hen said. “Let’s get on out of here,” Fudge said. “Where we go­ing to?”

Dennis Mcfad­den

“We’ll know when we get there.” “What we look­ing for?” “We’ll know when we see it.”

Grum­blings of thun­der from out of the west. Low over the hori­zon, black thunderheads were sprout­ing like toad­stools on a freshly dug grave, reach­ing high into the sky that had been over­come by haze, eras­ing all traces of blue. They walked to­ward the Birch­woods school­house, Hen con­tent in his own lag­gardly pace, Fudge, his face damp and clammy, clench­ing his fists to keep from break­ing into a trot. The breezes com­menced ahead of the storm. The leaves on the trees be­gan to flip and twist in panic, lift­ing and fall­ing in uni­son, and Fudge could smell traces of an odor that al­ways put him in mind of the in­nards of a freshly gut­ted trout. Fudge pulled ahead. “Move it, Hen. We gonna get wet.” Hen shrugged, his pace un­al­tered. “Lit­tle wet never killed no­body.” “Tell that to Noah,” Fudge said. Around the bend, down through the hol­low, the school­house came into view. There stood the black Mor­gan, Jupiter, teth­ered to the bush be­hind the build­ing. They stopped in the road, stared at the horse, toss­ing his head and paw­ing, his long, black tail rolling like a flag in the wind from the in­com­ing storm. Nei­ther man spoke. Af­ter a minute Hen said, “You sup­pose they in there?” “Ain’t likely they any­wheres else.” They stared for a few mo­ments more, wind pick­ing up, thun­der grum­bling closer. “We best go on in, see for our­selves,” Hen said. “How come they ain’t no noise?” said Fudge. “What kinda noise?” “Noise. Voices. Talk­ing. Yelling. Cry­ing.” “Maybe they busy.” They ap­proached the build­ing, mak­ing no ef­fort to con­ceal them­selves. At the door, which was closed, they stopped again and lis­tened. Noth­ing. No sound but the wind in the branches, the thun­der on the rise. A small limb snapped free of a tree, flew to the road, tum­bled away. When the first fat rain­drops be­gan to lash at their backs, Hen pushed open the door. Miss Eva floated like an an­gel. They stepped in­side to be­hold her. She was hang­ing from a rafter, her face hid­den by her hair fall­ing down, graced by a stripe of red rib­bon. A gust from the open door­way caught her, rif­fling her skirts, lift­ing the rib­bon in her hair, mak­ing her body sway and turn in the gloom. Across the room on the lit­tle bench, nearly un­seen in the shad­ows, sat Au­gus­tus, el­bows high on his knees, face buried in his hands.

Miss Eva Al­corn passed into the col­lec­tive lore of the town, an un­for­tu­nate girl who’d led a short, sor­row­ful life. When she was found in the school­house, a

bench tipped over be­neath her slip­pers, sui­cide was as­sumed by most, for the hid­den bruises over the years had not gone un­no­ticed, nor had her pre­vi­ous at­tempts to run away, nor her fa­ther’s un­nat­u­ral sense of pos­ses­sion. Cap­tain Al­corn was di­min­ished by his daugh­ter’s death, by the whis­pers and ru­mors around it. He fell from fa­vor with the town’s elite. In­vi­ta­tions to dances and din­ners de­clined. No longer was he in­vited to re­view the lo­cal blues on muster day. He spent less time in his foundry, more in his dis­tillery, drink­ing his prod­uct, count­ing his prof­its and losses.

Au­gus­tus Hamil­ton and Lit­tle Brier did not es­cape un­scathed. Though it passed too quickly for the ru­mors to truly gain pur­chase, they never truly died, and Fudge could sense, with his bee’s in­stinct, an el­e­vated level of hos­til­ity in the whis­pers, frowns, and glances on all the grim white faces. Au­gus­tus, mean­while, be­came ac­tive in the un­der­ground ac­tiv­i­ties to which he had hereto­fore been ex­cluded. He was in. Luke and Mary were de­liv­ered safely to the Deer Run sta­tion, as were sub­se­quent car­gos, Au­gus­tus’s sturdy and roomy wagon prov­ing per­fect for the pur­pose.

On a Sun­day af­ter­noon a month later, Hen again found Lucindy and Fudge in the yard at their leisure, shelling corn for the hens. He pulled up an old wooden box and joined them, though he didn’t reach for an ear in the bas­ket. The hens pecked and strut­ted in the dirt, and there was a hint of fall in the air, along with the smell of bak­ing bread. Down through the trees, Au­gus­tus had brought his Mor­gans, Jupiter and Love­joy, around from the sta­ble and was show­ing Napoleon how to clean Love­joy’s hooves with a hoof pick, while Belle, un­daunted de­spite hav­ing been chased away once by Napoleon, sat on a nearby stump, feign­ing in­ter­est. “You think that white girl done her­self in?” said Fudge, star­ing down through the trees.

“Course she did,” said Lucindy. “She go and fall in love with a nig­ger—and what girl ain’t gonna fall in love with that nig­ger—ain’t noth­ing else she can do. What else a lit­tle white girl can do, ’spe­cially one with a pappy like that?” “All’s I’m say­ing,” said Fudge, “’Gus­tus, he only cry the once. That’s all.” “When he cry?” said Hen. “That boy cry­ing when we got there. When we found him there with Miss Eva.” “I never seen no tears.” Lucindy said, “So what you say­ing? You say­ing she didn’t do her­self in, that boy done it for her? Lynch her up like a nig­ger?” “I’m just say­ing,” Fudge said. “Ain’t you ask him what took place? You spend all them nights along­side him in that wagon, you ain’t never ask him?”

“Never ask him noth­ing,” Fudge said. “Can’t go ask a man no ques­tion like that.” “Why not?” Lucindy said. “Why you can’t ask him that?” Fudge looked at his friend. “Hen, you tell her why you can’t go ask a man no ques­tion like that.”

Dennis Mcfad­den

Hen shrugged. “Fig­ure the boy talk when he want to. If he want to.” “And what if he don’t never want to?” Lucindy said. “Then we ain’t never gonna know,” said Fudge. “Are we?” The three stared down to where Au­gus­tus stood with his hands on his hips, Belle be­side him mir­ror­ing his pose, both watch­ing Napoleon at work, cup­ping Love­joy’s hoof, hold­ing it close to his leg, pick­ing out the ma­nure and dirt with­out dig­ging in the point of the pick. Lucindy gave a twist to her cob and a great shower of ker­nels rained into the basin. “Course she done her­self in,” she said.

Fudge and Hen pon­dered the pos­si­bil­ity. Fi­nally Fudge of­fered up his own the­ory. “Rain­ing like blazes that day,” he said. “Maybe ’Gus­tus just hung her up there to dry.”

There was a mo­ment of si­lence, till Fudge’s gap-tooth smile broke through his straight face, and Hen threw back his head to laugh. Lucindy frowned. Or tried to frown. Her face twisted into a mass of con­flict­ing wrin­kles as the words clawed their way out of it: “Man can’t eat no soggy cracker!” and she gave in to a great hys­ter­i­cal laugh her­self, louder than ei­ther man.

Down by Au­gus­tus’s, the three young­sters all stood frozen, mouths open, star­ing up through the trees at the three old folks howl­ing with laugh­ter, fall­ing to their knees, slap­ping the earth in de­light.

The laugh­ter ended, the glee as fleet­ing as ever, leav­ing only the mys­tery to en­dure. That, and the stone wall that Fudge passed ev­ery day on his way into Harts­grove, the stones dap­pled with moss and lack­ing all sym­me­try, but set in per­fect har­mony, as still and per­ma­nent and peace­ful as the earth it­self. Lit­tle more than a month later, as he lay abed stricken with the fever—with what ev­ery­one be­lieved, at least at first, to be the fever—vi­sions of the stone wall kept en­ter­ing his mind, bring­ing him peace, and he thought too about his friend Hen, also en­dur­ing, and about the mys­tery of Au­gus­tus and Miss Eva, though the an­swer still would not come to him. Some things, like Hen, would not be hur­ried.

Some things, how­ever, like Hen too, could turn sur­pris­ingly fleet. Death, for in­stance, quick as a flea. And so it was for Fudge. Dr. Means could not save him. No one could. As Fudge lay dy­ing, a ghost of moon­light upon the floor, his face shin­ing with sweat, he could hear the wa­ters of the Lit­tle Brier, wa­ters that car­ried him away as the crows, soar­ing over­head, watched him born down­stream, un­al­ter­ably, un­err­ingly, to­ward the place where the hid­den hooks were wait­ing.

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