The Bargain Struck
Abraham Teague thought himself a damned fool, the worse fool, too, because his foolishness had gotten him killed. Presently, he lay fearful and feverish beside a trickling stream. He wanted very much not to die, but death was inevitable now. He wondered how long he had left and how badly he would suffer.
His thirst had become overpowering. Though any movement caused intense pain – from his ruined leg up into every bit of his body – he leaned over the stream and dipped his cupped hand into the water, drinking as deeply as he could. At least the stream was his. He might die next to it, but he by God owned it.
Six weeks earlier, Abraham had struck out on horseback for the eighty acres he’d purchased from the government of the United States, lying untouched in a place called Oniate County, Ohio. Not that there was anything other than a name to the area he’d come to. Forests and Indians had laid claim to the land long before Abraham Teague reckoned their time had passed and his had come. But he didn’t see any Indians, and except for the animals and trees, there was likely only Abraham Teague occupying the land for any distance less than a full week’s travel.
He had not been entirely sure he’d found the correct boundaries to the parcel he’d purchased. But it seemed close enough, and no one was around to tell him otherwise. So on the day he arrived, Abraham dismounted his horse and took stock of the trees that forested the land and stood between him and his. The sight dismayed him. At the beginning of his journey, he had packed his horse with all of his worldly possessions: an ax, a shovel, blanket, musket, flint, some bags of seed, a volume of Shakespeare’s works, rope, his deed, and a Bible. Lots of hard work lay ahead, and likely as not he’d come ill-equipped for getting it done.
“Can’t one ax and a shovel do all that needs doing,” he said aloud. “But, by God, I’m Abraham Teague, and I won’t be beat before I try.”
Abraham was a short and slightly built man, standing just five feet tall. He had taken abuse from it over his twenty-five years, and he’d come out the other side a fighter, scrappy and determined to stand on his own two feet. No one had ever given him anything but a cruel joke, and he had long stopped hoping for more. He looked angry, even when he wasn’t, a trick learned to warn against mockery. Through it all, he’d known he was more than the butt of someone’s joke, a man ready to take on the whole world if need be, so long as he was willing to do it alone. But there was a fever in Abraham Teague, a deep and abiding desire to be loved and admired. Not by men, but by family. He would make his place, build it with his own hands, and someday have children who would see him as a father worthy of their respect.
The weakness in his plan, he knew, was that no woman whom he’d ever set eyes upon had set eyes on him. But with land, with the security of crops growing in the fields, he was sure some woman would find him, see what he had built, and if not love him, cleave to him for the sustenance he would bring forth from the earth. It was a hard life, he reckoned, and there were plenty of fates worse that could befall a woman than him.
He pulled his ax free from the horse and found the tree closest to him. He planted his legs firmly in the dirt, set the ax down, and spit in his hands, rubbing the saliva into his palms. He wasn’t certain that a bit of spit would help the great doing that needed to be done, but it seemed a rightly ritual for a new beginning.
He picked up the ax and began his first swing at the trunk, angling in with all his might. But his right foot wasn’t planted in dirt so firmly as he thought, his boot finding a bit of scat to step in. As he braced himself against his own forces on his scat-standing foot, the scat smeared, and his boot slid. He fell, mid-swing, into the dirt. The ax handle slipped loose from his spitty palms and flew into the air.
Then fate worked hard against him. The ax that had flown skyward hit the tree up high, bounced off, and fell earthward onto Abraham’s leg, the sharpened bit driving through his pantleg and into the flesh of his calf.
The pain did not come right off, but the blood did, oozing up through his pantleg like eager red spring waters. The sight of it made him feel weak and nauseous, which made him angry. He fought back the tears that wanted to flow in response to another cruel joke, this one by his own clumsy hand. He was Abraham By God Teague, and he would not suffer himself to be undone by an errant ax head, which he now personalized as one alongside the living souls who had given him torment over the years.
He leaned up and grabbed the bottom of his pantleg, pulling it above the wound. The wound was deep and ugly, but not so ugly as to undo his fierce will to succeed. Yet it was ugly enough that he passed out at the first sight of it.
Consciousness returned to him moments later. He spat and cursed. Then he took hold. He dug into the dirt with his hands until he had a small pile of it lying next to him. He scooped the dirt up and slapped it angrily into the open wound. The stinging pain that came from the packing was intolerable, and he passed out once more.
He woke and saw the dirt had slowed the blood’s oozing. He grabbed more dirt and drove it into the wound, pressing down hard. For a moment, consciousness wavered. He lay back down and took a deep breath. After a bit, the pain dulled. He pulled his knife from its sheath and began cutting away at the pantleg to his knee, making strips with the cloth. Then he tied the strips around his calf tightly to hold the dirt in. He lay back again and said a prayer.
An hour later, he decided he had lain uselessly in the dirt long enough. Slowly, he stood up, bearing his weight on his good leg, using the injured leg only to steady himself. The pain was intense, but for Abraham Teague, that meant it must be fought against. He picked up the ax, cursed it, and gripped the handle tightly. Then he took the swing he’d first meant to take at the tree. He nearly fell again with his bad leg trying to give in to the pain and collapse. Abraham willed it otherwise and took a second swing at the tree. As the day turned to dusk, the tree fell, and Abraham declared this would be the first of the logs from which he would build his home.
With the day’s work done, he limped to his horse and took the reins. He led the horse to the shallow stream that crossed his land. Surrounding the stream was a small meadow. Abraham hobbled the horse, unpacked his gear, and removed the saddle. Then he turned the horse loose to drink and graze. He gathered fallen branches and dry leaves to start a fire. Once the fire was lit and going strong, he rolled out his blanket next to it and lay down to sleep, hungry, as he had not had time to hunt.
Abraham rose with the morning light. His calf was stiff and sore, but somewhat better than it had been the day before, the pain less intense. He carefully loaded his musket and set off for the woods. Fortune favored Abraham that day, and he saw a buck standing idly beneath a tree. Abraham shot true. The buck died, and Abraham was fed.
He left the horse in the meadow and trekked back to where he had felled the first tree. Three more fell that day, and before dusk, Abraham had stripped the trees of their branches, leaving clean logs to build with later.
There was no moon, and Abraham had not carried a lantern with him into the wilderness. Beside the stream, he gently unwrapped the strips holding the dirt packed into his wound. He could not see in the dark, but the wound felt hot to the touch. He thrust his leg into the stream and let the cool flowing waters wash away the packed in dirt. Then he cut away his good pantleg to the knee and made fresh strips of cloth to bind the wound, leaving some aside to use later. He washed the crusted strips that had previously covered the wound in the stream and laid them across a rock to dry.
Carefully, he explored the wound with his fingertips. The blood seemed to have stopped, but some stickiness still oozed forth. He brought his fingers to his nose and smelled. Whatever was coming from the wound smelled foul on his fingertips. He washed his hands and put his leg back into the water.
After a while, he took his leg back out and wrapped it in the new strips.
On the third day he woke with a fever. His groin pained him, and he felt lumps on his throat. A terrible heat rose from the wound, and he saw yellow pus oozing around the bandages. It seemed to Abraham that nothing was ever going to be fair or just where he was concerned. This angered him, and he spat in disgust, rising despite his misery.
Coyotes had been at the buck’s carcass, yet Abraham found there was enough left to cut some meat free. He thought to restart the fire to cook it, but decided he had no appetite. So he left the meat and carcass for the coyotes. He grabbed his ax. That day, two trees fell, and Abraham Teague fell exhausted and sick on his blanket, burning hot through the night.
The next day, he thought himself a fool and knew he was going to die. He crawled to the stream and took what he thought would be his last drink. The unfairness of it struck him bitterly. He had been an outcast all his life, so he’d cast himself out to stand strong, if alone, here in the wilderness, determined to bend a hardscrabble bit of land to his will. No one had ever given him anything, but now he was stopped by his own hand before he could finally take his due.
The fever began to take his mind from him. He hallucinated and cried out beside his stream. Once or twice, his horse looked over to see what the noise was. Then it returned to grazing on Abraham Teague’s tiny meadow.
At some point, clarity and anger returned to him. He shouted out to God.
“Help me, God! Don’t let me die the fool.” Then he heard a voice.
“I’m here, Abraham!”
“Oh, Jesus,” Abraham thought, clearly enough to know the voice could not be real. “I’m going to die hearing things that ain’t even there.”
“I’m here, Abraham!” the voice repeated. “Open your eyes and behold me!”
The fever left Abraham then, instantly. He felt strong again. He opened his eyes. Sitting before him, on a rock next to the stream, was an old man, shaven, with a full head of white hair slicked back over his head. He looked wise, grandfatherly. Yet he was a large man and appeared powerful, despite his years. He was dressed in black garments and was carving a stick with a pearl-handled knife.
Insensible at the sight, Abraham asked, “Are you God?”
“I’ve been called that by many, and I have been given many names,” the man said. He smiled mirthfully at Abraham as if there was some amusing secret to what he had said. “But I will not lie to you, Abraham. I am not the God you called out to.”
Abraham sat up and wondered.
“Have you cured me?”
“Not yet, Abraham,” the man said. “I might. I might not. Depends on whether we can come to an agreement.”
Suddenly, Abraham feared the man had come to take what little he had.
“It’s my land,” Abraham said stubbornly. “I won’t give it away.” The man laughed hard, an infectious, mirthful laugh.
“Oh, Abraham! I don’t want to take what’s yours! I come to offer more!”
Abraham sat, bewildered. How was it he was feeling fine again if this wasn’t God come to work a miracle?
“What have you come for?” he asked.
“Nothing. Nothing yet. Now, Abraham, I can leave you the moment you wish it, and you’ll fall back into your fever and die here.” The man pointed to the buck’s carcass Abraham had hauled to the meadow. “By tomorrow, you’ll be as torn through by coyotes as that young buck you killed.”
Despite the kindly, wizened visage of the figure before him, Abraham began to sense that he lay at the foot of evil.
“Why don’t you leave?” Abraham asked then, wishing it but not wishing it. Suddenly the fever was on him again, and the heat of infection burned his body. His mind fell back into delirium. In the delirium, Abraham saw flames against a darkness that lay beyond, and the man with the white hair stood in the flames, yet he was not consumed by them.
“You have tasted what I can give you,” the man said. “A moment ago, you were yourself again. Without me, this is where you shall go, but briefly. What comes after you die, even I cannot say other than what the coyotes will do to you.”
Abraham’s reason was lost to him. He felt only pain and suffering.
“What do you want of me?” he cried out, fearful he was being tested somehow by God and failing.
“I want only that you have the things you want, Abraham, the things you fought for until that foul ax found your flesh. You see, Abraham, I heard your cry. I see what has befallen you is unfair. It is not what you deserve.”
“I don’t understand,” Abraham said, and because he’d forgotten asking before, he asked, “Are you God?”
“No, Abraham. God left you to this. I’ll leave you to your hopes and dreams. Sons, fine strong sons to worship you; a faithful woman to bear those sons and to love you. I will make this land prosper. Do you want those things still, Abraham? Or do you want what God has left you?”
“I . . .” Abraham’s mind was lost to rational thought, but it knew the man spoke of things Abraham had wanted with all his soul.
“Just say yes, Abraham. Say yes, and they will be yours.”
Fearing in his fevered mind that saying yes would damn his soul, Abraham was silent.
Then his mind was back in his body beside the stream, strong. He opened his eyes and saw the man at his calf, working the blade of the pearl-handled knife into the flesh of his wound. The pain made him scream, a thing Abraham By God Teague had never done, but the intensity of the pain was beyond anything Abraham could have imagined. Tears streamed from his eyes, and he tried to pull away. But he could not move.
The man smiled at him, compassionately.
“Gotta work the rotted flesh out of you, Abraham. Gotta dig into it, down deep.”
The man smiled again and went back to work. Abraham passed out.
When he awoke, the wound was healed, only a deep scar remaining.
“That’s just to let you know I can do what I say I can,” the man said, gesturing to the wound with the knife. “But it’s only if you say yes. Say no, and the knife goes back in to put it the way you left it.”
“Will I be damned?” Abraham asked.
The man seemed to consider it.
“Don’t know,” he finally answered. “I am what I am, and that I know. Can’t speak for others.”
“What do you want of me?” Abraham asked, deciding himself otherwise forsaken and thinking he might say yes. Yet, he was afraid of his God.
“You will have your sons,” the man said. “They will love you. No matter the man you are, they will worship you. And you will have your wife, and this land will bring forth all that you ask of it.”
“Why?” Abraham asked. “Why would you do this?”
“Because I am like you, Abraham. Just as you would strike out and lay claim to new lands, I wish to lay claim to those lands as well, to hold my own humble dominion over them. You are the rock upon which I shall build my prosperity.”
“But you have a price,” Abraham whispered, knowing he would be damned if he took anything from this man willingly.
“Of course, I do,” the man said. “No man can prosper without putting a price on things. I cannot lie to you, Abraham. The bargain won’t stick if I do. Say yes, and you’ll have all those things. But the sons who worship you will perish before their time; the woman you love will live only as long as it takes to give those sons to you and ensure they are quickened to life. Their souls will be their own so long as they walk this earth, but in death, I shall have a claim on them.”
“That’s too much!” Abraham cried.
“Maybe you’re right, Abraham,” the man smiled. “But if I don’t give those things to you, you’ll never have them in the first place. The sons will never be born, and your wife will perish in bondage. Think of it! Your sons will never see the light of day, never exist at all unless you say yes. Would you deny them their own lives, Abraham, to fill the belly of a coyote?”
Abraham thought he could not bring sons into this world if they’d be damned for the bringing, damned before they’d even begun. So, in a firm voice, he said, “No!” But in his heart, he wanted all those things, and he did not want to die. It made him angry to die. Because of this, his true heart whispered yes.
The man was gone. Abraham was healed.
The next day, he felled five more trees. At dusk, Abraham lay on his blanket and wondered what he had done.
In the morning, he woke to the sounds of a woman screaming. He looked up and saw a man riding a horse slowly across the meadow. Behind him, a rope pulled another horse, packed high with heavy bags and equipment. Behind that horse, a tall, slender woman with red hair followed. Her wrists were manacled, and the manacles were tied to another rope, this one attached to the second horse.
“Got no right, mister!” the woman screamed, pulling uselessly against the rope and chain. Her wrists were bleeding from her efforts. Tears fell from her eyes.
The man riding the horse ignored her.
Abraham scarcely believed what he saw. He’d heard of such things happening to slaves who’d run away from their masters, and to white men as well, when a bounty was placed on them. But the woman he saw was not a Negro, so not a slave – and though she seemed unnaturally tall for a woman, she surely was not a man.
Abraham was confused, but roused to purpose nevertheless. He stood and demanded, “Hey, there, mister! What are you about?”
Then, repeating what the woman had said, he shouted, “You got no right!”
The man pulled on the reins and brought his train to a halt. He looked at Abraham and hollered in response, “Just passing through, young fella. No need to get angry ‘bout it. I ain’t staying.”
“No need to get angry!?!” Abraham yelled. “You’re draggin’ a woman across my land against her will! I won’t stand for it.”
Abraham leaned down and picked up his musket. He began loading powder and ball into the barrel. The man looked at him and laughed.
“Okay, now, take’r easy,” he said. “I can see why you’d be concerned, but it ain’t the way you’re seeing it.”
The man dismounted and began walking slowly toward Abraham, holding papers high above his head.
“Take a look at these before you go off halfcocked,” he said. “You’ll see you’re interferin’ with the law.”
Warily, holding both hands up to show he held no weapons, the man came closer to Abraham. Despite the man’s weaponless hands, Abraham noted a pistol was tucked into his pants at the waist, and a sheath held a long knife against his thigh.
“Hold it right there,” Abraham commanded, raising his musket. “Before you come any closer to me, you take that pistol and knife of yours and throw them behind you a ways.” The man smiled.
“I’ll set them down and come forward, with your permission,” he said, reasonably. “Can’t say I want to toss a fine weapon around to get damaged.”
“Fine. Do that then.”
The man eased his pistol out, holding it by the barrel, and set it gently on the grass. Then he took his knife and set it beside the pistol. Once relieved, he held his hands up high again.
“See? I’m no threat to you. Can I come forward now?”
The man moved toward Abraham and handed him the papers. “Can you read?”
Abraham took the papers. One was a wanted poster, showing a drawn likeness that seemed to resemble the woman and described her as a runaway slave named Bessie. The other was a signed affidavit, claiming ownership over a slave named Bessie.
“I read just fine,” Abraham answered, handing the papers back. “These say some fella owns a runaway slaved named Bessie. But this here’s a white woman, not no slave.”
“That’s where your confusion comes in,” the man explained. “You seen the picture. It’s her. I’ll give it to you she’s light-skinned. That’s what fooled you. Not all darkies are all Negro. This one’s a quadroon. A quarter Negro, so she’s light-skinned. But that don’t make her white. She’s property.”
“I know what quadroon means,” Abraham said, appearing calm, but seething inside. Abraham had an abiding hatred of slavery. He’d felt the misery of slaves like he felt his own misery, living among men but derided by them, given no account upon his actual worth. He at least could walk away, even if it was into the wilderness to die. A slave didn’t even have that. They were mocked with servitude over their natural beings, and because of that, Abraham hated all men who would own a slave.
“So,” the man continued, “this is all legal. Soon as I find a judge, I’ll get a certificate and take her back home. The law says that’s the way it is.”
The man added in warning, though seeming to commiserate with Abraham, “Law also makes it illegal for any man to interfere. So, are we square?”
Abraham stood silently, figuring what he was going to do. The man shrugged and walked back to his horse, retrieving his knife and pistol along the way. Then he mounted his horse and began moving the train forward again.
Abraham looked at the woman. She lurched forward with the pull of the rope, looking to Abraham now with pleading tears. Abraham was moved. She was a slave. It didn’t matter to Abraham then whether she was a quadroon or as black as iron. He would not abide slavery on his land.
“Looks to me like she don’t want to go with you,” he finally shouted. “Why don’t you set her free, and you can pass over my land after that.”
The man looked back over his shoulder and laughed.
“You’d have to pay me more than I’m getting to take her back, son,” he replied. “I’d suffer reputation damage, too. I don’t fail to bring back what I’m paid to bring. Bad for business. You don’t look like you got a dollar to your name, and I’m getting five hundred dollars to bring this one back. The light skinned ones is extra valuable.”
“All the same,” Abraham shouted. “You brung her on my land, and my rules is what governs here. I say leave her be.”
The man shook his head and seemed to sigh. Nevertheless, he kept moving, though Abraham noted his hand had dropped to hold the hilt of his pistol.
Abraham decided his course. He leveled his musket at the man and pulled the trigger. The powder lit. The musket fired and missed, but the man stopped.
“You ought not’ve done that,” he said, pulling the pistol free. He stopped the horse, leaned back in his saddle, and took careful aim at Abraham. Then he fired.
Abraham felt the ball tear away part of his ear. Blood began to flow down his neck.
The man cursed for missing and jumped quickly from his horse, pulling the long-bladed knife from its sheath. He ran at Abraham, holding the knife in his fist.
Abraham didn’t have time to reload, but he held his musket and his ground. Abraham Teague had lost many fights, but he’d never once backed down from one. The man kept coming at Abraham, knife held high and ready to plunge into Abraham Teague once he closed in.
Abraham dropped his musket and steadied himself on both legs, ready to move whichever way survival dictated. Then the man was over him, bringing the knife downward. Abraham easily moved out of the way and kicked the man in the gut. Abraham heard a loud “oomph!” and the man fell on his back, dropping the knife. Abraham picked it up and drove it into the man’s heart.
Abraham kicked the corpse and spat. Then he rifled around the man’s clothing until he found a key. He took it and walked to the woman. She was crying.
“It’s all right now,” Abraham said. “Ain’t no man taking you without you want to go.”
He unlocked the manacles. Warily, the woman backed away. Abraham noted that she was nearing six feet tall and looming above him. If she wanted to put up a fight, Abraham might find her more than a handful to tangle with.
“Don’t you need to be afraid of me,” Abraham said. “You’re free. Take that man’s stuff, if you want it. It’s yours. Go where you will.”
The woman looked uncomprehendingly at Abraham.
“You mean it? I can go?”
Abraham felt a flash of anger.
“I didn’t kill no man so as I could steal a slave. You’re as free in this world as any man, so long as you don’t let one catch you.”
The woman looked at Abraham and cried, “I can’t never be free. I run off, and they come and get me. I go back home, and they whip me, and they gonna sell me or put me in the fields this time. There ain’t no freedom in this world, no freedom until the good Lord takes me home.”
Abraham considered. What she said was likely true.
“You can stay here then,” he said, finally. “Be free here. I won’t put no manacles on you, and I won’t sell you back to where you come from. I’ll keep you hid if hiding’s what’s needed. Otherwise, you’re to be as free as me upon this land. You won’t need to do that thing with me, neither. I put no hold over you.”
The man’s horses bore tools of all kinds, saws and knives and pots and pans and a large tent that Abraham made a home of until a log cabin could be built to live in. The horses bore the heavy work that Abraham could not do alone or with a single horse. It was like a gift from God, though murder had brought it forth.
Like the papers said, the woman’s name was Bessie, and she stayed and fell in love with the determination and courage of the small and cantankerous Abraham Teague. Beside him, she worked and toiled upon the land, shaping logs, building the cabin they would live in, plowing the fields, and sowing and reaping. On the land with Abraham Teague, she was something she had never been before: a partner and an equal to a man who, strange and angry as he was, cherished her for who she was, not what he had determined she would be. In the heart of Abraham Teague, she found no division between woman and man, no imaginings of station or servitude. Together, they built their world, and it was nothing like the world of men each had fled.
Yet had it not been for the bargain Abraham had made with the dark-souled being by the stream, Abraham would have perished, and Bessie would have remained bound to her captor and been taken through Abraham’s land to her former masters. And had it not been for the bargain made, even together, Bessie and Abraham would have perished upon their land, failing despite their devotions to one another and their work to bend the land to their will.
Instead, crops came easily from the earth; rain fell whenever needed; and animals of all kinds, hogs and fowl and even cattle, inexplicably wandered onto the land, to be kept and corralled behind fences and in sheds built by Bessie and Abraham. Winters were mild. Disease never took hold, and water came forth from stream and well, wholesome and pure.
One day, after the first year’s bounty, Bessie sat beside Abraham on the porch they had built. She smiled at the man she called her husband by then and said playfully, “The God of Abraham has blessed us, sure.”
Abraham found no mirth. He looked to the woman he called wife and spat in the dirt, afraid of what he had wrought.
Bessie bore five strong sons in the years that followed, each growing heartily and sure upon the land. Yet as time moved forward, the haven Bessie and Abraham built no longer stood as a refuge apart from the world of men. Other settlers had come to Oniate County during the years Bessie and Abraham brought their sons to life, farmers seeking to take their own due from the land, and the small town of Salud had sprung up not five miles from their home, sputtering along with the beginnings of business and commerce, slaves seldom seen within its boundaries but they accompanied their masters passing through from the south.
And so, as the world followed the Teagues to Oniate County, Bessie knew fear.
She remembered well what men saw in the heritage of skin. Closely, she watched her growing sons, seeking in each of them a trace of the lineage she had bequeathed to them. But she lost the fear she had secretly hidden from Abraham, seeing in each of her boys skin so close to white that none would ever find himself bound to servitude on account of it.
“No man will put shackles on my sons!” she proclaimed to Abraham. “They will stand among them and be proud!”
“There’d be no shame in them looking Negro, Bessie,” Abraham scolded her, overwhelmed, as he often was, at how deeply he loved her, and knowing in his heart that he had already taken everything from her and her children. “Your heritage is theirs, too. Ignorant fools don’t make it otherwise.”
“Don’t matter,” she’d said. “It’s a gift from God. They gonna be safe from the evils in this world.”
No matter that Bessie’s fear had eased away, Abraham remembered the man on the horse and his determination to take Bessie back into slavery. If he had come, others might, too. So Abraham refused all trespassers on the farm. When others wandered onto his land, seeking fellowship or trade, they were met with an angry Abraham, holding his musket and threatening to kill any man who refused to leave or who might return, despite warning.
“You can’t drive every man away who comes here, Abraham!” Bessie had scolded him. “Someday, our boys will need to find womenfolk, and they ain’t gonna find them growing in the fields.”
Abraham spat. “Can’t let no man see you here,” he told her. “Don’t know what’s to happen if they did.”
“I’ll stay in the cabin, Abraham,” she said, wanting to know her sons would find love and companionship someday.
“I told you a long time ago I’d keep you hid if it was needed,” Abraham told her. “But I won’t see you hid away from a world that ain’t good enough for you. The world will just have to stay where it belongs – the hell off our land!”
One day when Bessie was hanging wash on a line beside the cabin to dry, she spied a visitor ambling meekly up the road. Abraham and the boys were working in the fields. Bessie was alone.
She looked at the man, knowing it was too late to hide away. So she stood and waited.
“Ma’am,” the man greeted her and asked, “Is the man called Abraham here?”
“No sir,” Bessie answered, deciding on a lie to protect her children now that she had been seen. “I work for him, though. He’s about here somewheres. You might want to go though. Mr. Abraham’s not been happy to see strangers since his wife died.”
“Oh,” the man said, Bessie noting an air of desperation in the man’s mannerisms. “I’m real sorry to hear it, but I need to see him.”
“Well, Ma’am,” the man said, “I don’t know how it is, but I see this land doing well. There’s crops in the fields, and it looks like Mr. Abraham has found a way to get water to those crops.”
Bessie wondered at the man’s meaning.
“Maybe you don’t know it,” the man continued, “but the rest of us around here ain’t doing so well. Without the rains coming, our crops have died.”
“We got nothing to feed the livestock with neither. Most has died.”
“You didn’t store nothing up for hard times?”
“Did and been through it,” the man said. “This ain’t the first bad year. Don’t know how you folks have managed.”
“Mr. Abraham’s a wise man,” Bessie said, suspicion growing in her mind. “A hard worker, too, along with his boys.”
Then Bessie saw something she’d never seen on a white man’s face before: tears. And for a moment, Bessie found deep in her heart some satisfaction at the sight. During her life she had seen rivers of tears fall upon the faces of her own kind, men and women alike, brought forth by the abject misery and terror they had been subjected to by the subjugating white man. She had never seen a slave who hadn’t cried; had never seen a white man who had. Then she thought of her husband and her children and felt ashamed. “They ain’t no different than this man here,” she thought, and she pushed her feeling aside. “I won’t hold no man accountable for the sins of others.”
Bessie watched as the man struggled and wiped his tears away.
“I’m sorry,” the man said. “Two of my own boys died this year. We got no food. I tried to sell my land, but ain’t no one willing to buy. I come to tell the man named Abraham I’ll give my land to him for enough to eat and keep what’s left of my family alive so’s we can get out of here to someplace better.”
Thinking of her own boys, Bessie’s heart ached for the man.
She was about to offer words of comfort when a vengeful Abraham suddenly burst from the high corn growing in their field. His musket was raised and ready to fire at the man. She saw murder in his eyes and knew Abraham would not hesitate to kill if he thought it right.
“Abraham!” she shouted. “Don’t you do it!”
Because he loved her so, Abraham had seldom failed to heed his wife’s admonitions, yet here, now, he felt her very life might be in danger, this stranger before him having confronted her. If this man had seen the posters somewhere with Bessie’s description, word might get out, and Abraham might find another man someday soon, like the one he had murdered to set Bessie free, returning to his land to take what Abraham, where the law was concerned, had stolen.
So Abraham wanted very much to kill the man. Yet Bessie had spoken, so he lowered his musket and considered instead how to finesse the man away from what he had seen. But finesse was beyond Abraham’s skills, so he said, “I don’t want no trespassers on my land. I’d as soon shoot a man than suffer him coming where he don’t belong.”
Abraham pointedly leveled the musket at the man and looked very much like he was going to shoot. The man stood, beaten before he’d arrived, and so ready for – perhaps welcoming – whatever might come from the barrel of Abraham’s musket.
Abraham saw the defeat in the man’s eye and lowered the musket. He spat and said, “But this woman here says not to shoot you. She’s got a kindness in her heart I ain’t got in mine. So you ought to reckon she just saved your life. But you get on out of here, and don’t come back.” Abraham raised the musket again for emphasis.
The man turned, his defeat now absolute. Wordlessly, he began to walk away.
“Mister,” Bessie called out. The man turned. “Where’s your farm?” The man told her and kept walking, his head hung low.
“Abraham,” Bessie told him sweetly, “we gonna help that poor man.”
“Why on earth?”
“He come here beggin’ for his family,” Bessie said. “Ain’t no man with a good heart oughta have to beg his way outta misery.”
“Bessie, have you forgot what men have done to you?”
Bessie gathered her sons then and put them to task. At their mother’s urging, they hitched two wagons up to horses and loaded the wagons with grain and corn from the family stores.
“We got more than we need,” she told him.
“We got enough to sell and make some money’s all.”
“Money don’t do no good where your conscience is concerned. A dollar don’t buy a sweet child’s life. The Bible has a word or two to say about charity, too.”
“I don’t like it.”
Bessie considered. “How is it we have so much, yet to hear this man tell it, folks are hungry hereabouts?”
“We,” Abraham started to say, then stopped. He knew why.
“That man said he’d give you his farm just for food.”
“I don’t want his farm.”
“Me neither. But we ain’t gonna let him or his kin starve.”
Bessie told her sons to take the wagons to the farm the man said he owned.
“When you get it there, you tell him to take what he needs. Then you ask him who else needs what’s left, and you take it to them.”
Abraham knew his sons had not yet been in the company of folks outside of their own family, and he feared what they might say. So he called them to him and admonished them before they left.
“You can’t never tell no one that your momma is your mother,” he said. “When you take that wagon, you don’t say nothing about it. If they ask, your momma died.”
“But why?” one had asked.
“Because all men have wicked hearts, and we don’t want none of that wickedness falling on your mother’s head.”
Dutifully, the sons of Abraham and Bessie did as they were told, taking the wagons and keeping the secret. Every day after that, Bessie commanded her sons to milk the cows and take what they would not use themselves to the farms and families that needed it.
And so the reputation of the honorable Teague family was set in stone. In the next season, rains came, and farms prospered; hunger and loss faded to memories of bad times; but none forgot the kindness of Abraham Teague, his sons, and the woman who did his wash.
In the next prosperous season, Bessie bore the sixth son of Abraham Teague, their last son, Zachariah Teague. Little Zachariah was not strong, but sickly and small, unable to thrive like his older, stronger brothers. Many times during Zachariah’s first years, Abraham and Bessie stood beside the child’s bed, weeping and mourning, certain he was soon to die. Then Bessie would reach down and hold Zachariah to her bosom, tearfully telling the child she loved him and that he was meant to live to be a great man.
At these times, Zachariah would find the strength to look up into his mother’s eyes, rebound and take nourishment, gaining strength for a time. Then the malaise would take hold once more, and the boy would wither and seem near death. And Bessie would raise him once more from the brink, holding him and willing life back into her child, for despite all that she knew of the cruelties of life and the ease through which the living passed into death, she would not accept that such things should touch her child and take him from the prosperity he deserved.
In his fourth year, Zachariah finally bent fully to Bessie’s will and began to find strength in his frail form, growing fast and leaving the malaise behind. Bessie and Abraham rejoiced.
Bessie died suddenly, once the health and strength in Zachariah Teague had become certain. She wasn’t old. She wasn’t sick. She wasn’t hurt. She was just sitting on the porch, smiling and singing a song to Zachariah as he napped in her arms. Nearby, Abraham watched mother and child, full of love for his wife and pride in his growing family, his fears almost forgotten. Then Bessie stopped singing. Her eyes shot wide open, and she fell over, spilling the sleeping Zachariah from her arms.
Before Bessie, Abraham had never had cause to love another human soul, nor, he was certain, had another human ever loved him. He’d loved God in his own angry, grudging sort of way, but he’d only come to it because he’d found a secret delight in the poetry of the King James Bible and delight also in the promise that God would judge and punish his tormentors someday.
But Abraham did love Bessie and in his heart had made her his wife. And, he knew she had loved him, for all his faults. She was taller than any man he’d met that had mocked him for his size, yet from her lips came only tender words of love and, when she found him less than he should be, harsh words of correction.
“You don’t stand around here and sulk and spit ‘cause you feeling sorry for yourself,” she’d scold. “You a good man. You a good man, Abraham, and you give me my life back. Don’t you think I’m sittin’ here wasting a second of it giving one thought to them that set me to servitude. Now you stand up and be counted in this world, and don’t let what’s befallen you keep fallin’ on you neither. You don’t give no man that power over you. You better than that.”
Abraham had been shocked to hear such rebuke. To his mind, he’d never felt sorry for himself, but fought all things that would refuse to let him be counted in this world. Yet Bessie found his hidden sorrows, rooted them out of him and made him cast them aside, for her sake if not his own. She taught him to see beauty and to laugh, even at himself – a thing he had never done before her smile filled his world.
She bore him beautiful sons filled with her spirit, and he loved them because they were so much like her. Yet Abraham had never forgotten the bargain and its consequences. He’d made the bargain even in spite of the God he thought he loved, and it had given him more than God had given him, though it had come from evil. So no matter how good life with Bessie had been, he knew retribution was only a matter of time, and his heart knew fear as much as it knew love.
Then Bessie died, as the bargain demanded.
Zachariah awoke as he fell from his mother’s arms and stood looking at her form lying on the porch, even as Abraham ran to them.
“Momma?” the boy said. “Momma, you sleeping?”
Abraham took the boy into his arms and hugged him hard, tears in his eyes.
“Momma’s gone to rest, my boy,” he told his son. “You go get your brothers from the field and bring them back here.”
Not understanding what was happening, Zachariah did as his father asked, running to the fields to find his brothers.
Abraham sat beside his wife and cried.
His grief was suffering worse than any he’d ever felt, worse than all the pain that had come to him through the infection that had almost taken his life and worse than the agony of the healing knife that the man by the stream had used to cut and sear his putrefied flesh – and which had branded Abraham Bessie’s true killer.
As he waited for his sons, Abraham considered, briefly, trying to assuage his own conscience, that the bargain hadn’t been all bad. Hadn’t Bessie lived a life better than she would have had? She’d had many good years, free and living a life that had given her joy. But the bargain’s terms crept back into his mind. The bargain wasn’t against just her life – the evil Abraham had reckoned with would now lay claim to her soul, and what horrors that meant for his beloved wife, Abraham did not know.
“Bessie, now you see what I done. I’m sorry. I shoulda been a better man. I should have been worthy of you, but I was afraid to die.”
As his boys gathered around him, Abraham said, “Your momma is in Heaven now. You boys kiss her goodbye.”
Confused and frightened, not yet understanding what death was, they each kneeled down in turn and kissed their mother.
Abraham decided a ceremony was needed for his boys and to set his wife properly to rest. There was a place upon his land, a low hill rising above the fields. And on that small hill stood an ancient oak tree. This he determined would be Bessie’s monument and resting place. He hoped against hope that from there her spirit might look down upon them.
He made his boys work with him, building a litter to place Bessie on for the journey to the hill. When it was finished, he and the boys lifted her body onto the litter. He got his horse and tied the litter to the saddle. Then in a slow procession, Abraham Teague led his boys and his wife to the hill.
Abraham began digging Bessie’s grave near the oak tree. His oldest son,
William, asked, “Why are you making that hole?”
“Your momma’s to rest in it,” Abraham told him.
“Momma don’t want to get into no hole,” William told him. “When is she going to wake up and come home?”
“Your momma can’t wake up no more,” Abraham said, continuing to dig.
“She’s just tired,” said Thomas, the second oldest. “Wake her up.”
“She can’t wake up no more,” Abraham repeated.
William was sixteen, Thomas fifteen. Both boys were taller, stronger than their father. Yet for their years, they did not know human beings might die like beasts and did not believe it could be so. William jumped into the grave beside his father and ripped the shovel from his hands.
“She’s going home,” he said angrily. “You’re not putting her in no hole.”
Thomas neared the grave behind Abraham. Abraham felt the violence festering within them and remembered the bargain.
“You will have your sons,” the devil had said. “They will love you. No matter the man you are, they will worship you.”
Abraham rejoiced in that moment, remembering the words as if they had just been spoken. Here now was rebellion that had been bargained against! His mind shouted with hope. Let them rise against me, and the bargain fails!
“Your momma is dead!” he shouted, tearing away at his own heart. “I’m going to bury her and spit on her grave for it!”
He grabbed the shovel back from William and stared at him hard, willing his sons to strike him down. Behind him, Thomas grabbed him and lifted him forcefully from the grave, knocking the shovel from his hand.
William leapt from the grave, and Abraham’s two oldest sons took him by his arms and dragged him to the base of the oak tree. Abraham was glad. They would fight him now and kill him even in defense of their mother. Their love for their mother would set them free!
But then their hands became gentle, and they lowered Abraham against the tree, all violence eased from their minds. Though the devil remained unseen, he had stayed true to his word, pulling Abraham’s cherished children from their own wills, playing them like puppets upon hidden strings. Their anger returned to worship and obedience to Abraham.
“Rest, Father,” William said. “Rest, and we will dig Mother’s grave for you.”
“We honor you, Father,” Thomas told him. “We did not understand.”
Abraham wept, utterly defeated, feeling himself the eternal fool. But that was not Abraham Teague. His own spark returned, stifling his tears and spurning despair. He was Abraham By God Teague, though his defiance was now conflicted by devotion.
He stood and wiped his tears angrily away. He thought then to step forward and fight his children over their mother’s body. Make them fight.
Make them rebel. But he settled his purpose and stood silently by instead. He would not take from his sons the memory of doing their mother a final, unmolested honor.
“Let them bury her,” he decided. “Then I will beat rebellion and hatred back into their hearts.”
Abraham prayed that he could remain true to his purpose. But he loved his Bessie and his children so that he become confused in the task. Rebellion, he determined, would not be enough. They would need a history of their family to place them in the world; knowledge and meaning – a philosophy to be whole spirits true to themselves. Rebellion alone, he thought, could only be another denigration, another taking of their souls.
So in the years that followed, Abraham revealed to them all he knew about their beloved mother, shared with them her thoughts, her love and wisdom. He told them that she had been a slave and that they – her sons – had given her so much joy that they’d erased from her heart the suffering those agonizing years of servitude had brought to her. He told them that they, like their mother, had the blood of Ham flowing in their veins, telling them that it made them like her, and because of it they would be finer and stronger men than any who walked the earth. He impressed upon them that this knowledge must forever be a secret because weaker, lesser men would force injustice upon them if they knew it.
“The secret,” Abraham told them, “makes you strong, but revealed, other men will use it to lay you low, a thing they cannot do otherwise.”
His sons learned the lessons, took heed of their father’s words, and rose into the world with their mother’s spirit branded fully upon their hearts. And whenever Abraham saw the lesson’s take hold, he would rise against his sons, beat them, and show them whatever petty cruelties he could, seeking to set them against him, to free them from his bargain.
Selfishly, in his deepest heart, he hoped he could provoke them to rise up and murder him. Perhaps then, he, too, might be free.
But the devil’s strings would pull and pull, and the sons of Abraham
Teague forever loved and worshipped their father.
A Murder in 1897
Gideon Teague was the last son of the last son of Abraham Teague, and though his grandfather had once plunged a knife into a man’s heart without a second thought, murder did not come natural to Gideon. Even his younger self, brooding and hate filled as he was, had not harbored a bit of intent that could rise to violence. Yet now he eyed the heavy stone that had captured his attention, reached for it and held it, figured its weight and the deadly nature it could be put to. But he was not his younger self. Death had come and instructed him in the faithlessness of hate, it being a transient and fickle thing, trifling and laying deceit against the man who held it. Death was permanent, unalterable. He had learned the lessons of Death, and the lessons took hold, wrenching the hard hate away from his heart. Regret and sorrow followed, nearly consuming him beyond the measure his hate had held for him. Then purpose had come, driven by contrition. Maybe contrition was the best he’d deserved, but love had come, too, giving him strength alongside purpose. No, hate had never been strong enough to put murder in his heart. But love was stronger than hate, and for love he would do what killing needed to be done.
Yet he paused. Maybe he would have thought better of it, feeling the weight of the stone as a lethal, living force. Unleashed, it could never be brought back to heel. His grip loosened, slightly. Then his quarry spoke, finally seeing – not the doubt, but the resolve warring with it on Gideon’s face. The man stood, frightened, his defiance shaken from him. He ran, and Gideon’s grip tightened on the stone. Like a hound let loose for the hunt, Gideon followed without hesitation. The man fell and screamed, begged. Gideon answered. The time for mercy had passed. He raised the stone and brought it down hard against the man’s skull with all his might.
The sickening crunch of bone vibrated through the rock, flowed through Gideon’s hands and up his arms. Nausea gripped his gut, and he thought he would vomit. The man’s forehead had become a bloody pulp, yet the man did not die. He rose like a shot and took to flight once more, begging, promising. Gideon followed, holding death in his hand, and in his heart, once more, hate. Seething hate.
* * *
A malevolent, seeking eye wandered the land. The consciousness behind it was neither spirit nor demon, but an incarnation unto itself. It knew little of its origins, but its memory spanned the ages. Within its dominion, it held great power. To a man dying beside a stream, it could offer renewed life and reward the desires held within the dying man’s heart. Yet gifts such as these would come at a deadly price, upon bargains struck foul, and only upon resentments held so deeply that a generation would be sacrificed in the taking.
The dying man meant nothing to it, and the gifts it could bestow were nothing more than trifles. A bargain struck, the man would be forgotten, and the creature would lay claim to the innocent generation that followed. It had struck many such bargains since humans first filled their hearts with desire – and resentment. In the molded destruction of the innocent, it amused itself and fed upon the despair that followed.
Yet a soul susceptible to its offerings was hard to find, no matter its influence. Other forces were at work in the world, pitted against the creature’s desire. So the souls it found ready for its gifts were few. No matter.
It was patient and seeking, ever seeking.
Somewhere close, it spied an emotion that held promise, and the creature flew to it. In a tiny remnant of forest, it sensed a man about to do murder. It entered the man’s mind, unseen, seeking. But it found the vessel unsuitable. The man had found the things he desired – the murder merely at hand to keep those things as they were. The creature could not offer what already existed, and it thought to leave. Then it sensed a thing in the man, a lineage. The creature recognized the blood, for it had sweetly taken the blood of the man’s preceding generation. The creature felt desire then, strong at hand. Yet it had no hold. A generation was what it took, and the next was denied to it by the terms of its bargain and forces it did not understand.
Still, its desire was strong for this generation, too. So, when the murder was done, it set its sight upon the murdered soul, and through that soul, it thought, might its claim fall at last upon the blood of a later descendant. It mused then that it had found a secret to take more than the bargain had given. That it had taken so long to see that this was possible enraged it so that it would make the murdered soul suffer for its oversight.