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3 FREE chapters of CASEY'S WORLD. Enjoy.
Robert W Raymond
The Civil War is over. The slaves have all been freed, all except for me. I am in jail, awaiting my execution at sunrise tomorrow. Through the barred window I can see the new gallows where I shall hang.
The circumstances putting me here began on my seventh birthday. Mama woke me. She said, "Hurry up, boy. Breakfast's gittin cold. You ain't even dressed yet." She had laid out my heavy trousers, a long sleeve shirt, my boots, and a wide brim straw hat.
“Mama these are my winter clothes.”
“I know dat. Dey gonna keep you from burnin up out dar in de field under dat hot sun.”
After our breakfast of scrambled eggs, grits, buttered biscuits, and smoked bacon, we left our cabin to go to roll call. All the slaves on Parker Plantation went for roll call every morning except on Sundays.
We joined others walking down the dark street to gather in front of Mr. Edwards’ cabin. Mr. Edward took count to make sure no one ran off into the night.
Mr. Edward was fortunate that the Master chose him to be our Overseer. Along with the position, came the title Mister, a beautiful black horse to ride, a woman to cook his meals, keep the cabin, wash and iron his clothes, and lay with him, when he wanted her.
Mister Edward had complete authority over us. He could discipline us in any fashion he chose, short of killing or crippling anyone. Everyone said Mister Edward had an evil eye. "If you lock eyes with him he'll own your soul."
Mister Edwards’s door opened and he came out on the porch. He was a tall broad shouldered muscular man with a deep voice rumbling out of his mouth like thunder. I watched him with interest, but I never let him catch me.
Mister Edward took his time. He went to the edge of the porch eyeballing us.
“Where's old Sam?” he called out to no one in particular.
“He's sick as a skunk, Mister Edward, up-chucking all night long. He's so weak dat he can't even drink a cup of chicory dis mornin,” Bert said. Bert shared one of the cabins in Black Bottom with Sam and two other men.
Mister Edward glanced around for someone.
“Stella?” He called out to her.
“Yes sur, Mister Edward.”
I turned to look at her. She was old, wrinkled, and grey headed. It would not be long before Mister Edward took her out of the fields and put her over children too young to pull their weight in the fields.
“Dis is yo lucky day Stella. You don't have to work in de field today. You go take good care of Sam. I want him well tomorrow mornin and back to work. You hear me Stella?"
“Yes, sur, Mister Edward, I will take good care of him, make him good as new.”
“Dar any utter business dis mornin?” Mister Edward asked.
“Yes sur, Mister Edward,” Mama called to him, “my boy Casey turned seven years old dis mornin.”
Mama held onto my shoulders as if I might run away. I wouldn’t though. I was timid about going to work but at the same time, I was prideful of being grown all up.
Mister Edwards stared down at me. I looked into his cold dark eyes for only a second, then I hung my head looking down at my boots.
“Happy Birthday, boy, now you gonna earn yo keep.” I peeked. Edward was smiling with a mouth full of big white teeth like a snarling dog.
“Rooster, are where you at boy?” He searched the faces in the crowd.
“Right here, sur,” Rooster said. Rooster was middle aged, short, and plump. He strutted like a bantam rooster when he walked. He deserved his nickname.
“You take Casey with you to run de hens.”
“All right, everyone get to work.” Mister Edwards turned, went back inside his cabin. Mama knelt down to me. She stared into my eyes serious like. “You be careful out in de field, boy. You hear me? Drink plenty of water, or dat mean old sun will get you.”
“Yes, ma'am I will.”
“You ready, Casey?” Rooster said.
“Yes sir.” I walked with Rooster to his wagon. It was special built with a chicken pen in back, full of cackling hens. Wade, Timmy, and Zack, boys a year or two older than me waited at the wagon.
“You goin to love worming, Casey,” Wade said. “It's the best job out in de field, right Timmy?” Timmy agreed with a nod of his head.
“Let’s load up,” Rooster said. Timmy and Zack scurried to sit beside Rooster. Wade and I climbed on the side of the wagon holding onto the chicken pen. Rooster slapped the long leather reins down on the horse’s back and off we went.
It was still cool out in the tobacco field when we got there. Rooster opened the cage door. All the chickens hopped out and they began searching the lower tobacco leaves for fat green Horn worms.
We boys and Rooster watched the hens, kept them moving down the tobacco rows, as we picked Horn worms from the higher tobacco leaves. We dropped the worms to the ground for the chickens to gobble up.
As soon as the sun got up high and hot, the worms took shelter behind the leaves, out of the heat of the sun. The chickens had their work cut out for them, finding those worms.
After our lunch, we caught the chickens and we put them back in the cage. Mister Edward assigned Zack and Timmy to other chores. I rode back with Rooster to the chicken coop. We let the hens out of the cage. They went right to work scratching the ground for more bugs to eat.
Rooster unhitched the horse from the chicken wagon and hitched him up to the water wagon and drove us to the well. At the well, Rooster lowered the wooden bucket on a rope, down into the well, to fill it up with water. He untied the bucket of water. He handed it to me. "Empty the water in that barrel."
While I carried the bucket to the water barrel, Rooster tied another bucket to a rope and he lowered it down to fill. This routine continued dozens of times. By the time the water barrel was full, my arms felt like they would fall off. I did not complain afraid that Rooster would think me a crybaby.
Rooster drove the wagon back out to the tobacco field. He told me to take the water bucket and ladle, around to give the thirsty field hands a drink. I spent the rest of the day bringing water to thirsty mouths. When we returned to the cabin the sun was already down. I was so tired, I kept falling asleep during our evening meal.
The first week in the field I saw Larry and Robert, and they saw me, for the first time. They were accompanying my Master, their father. He rode his big white mare and Larry and Robert following behind on their ponies.
I peeked over a tobacco plant to get a good look at them. Robert was my height and age, Larry was taller and older. They were dirty blonds. Mama called them towheads.
“What’s a White boy doing out here with the slaves?” I heard Larry asked his father. Larry was looking at me when he said this.
“He’s not White, he’s a Mulatto.” John Parker said. He glanced over at me. I looked away.
“What’s a Mulatto?” Robert asked.
“A Mulatto's someone who's half White, half Colored, but he's still a slave, because his Mama’s a slave.”
They rode their horses close to me. As they passed by, I glanced up catching Larry's eyes for a moment, before l looked away.
“He’s got green eyes just like ours. How come his eyes are green, father?” Larry asked.
“Damned if I know,” John Parker said. “Come on, there’s a lot more I want to show you boys today. John Parker rode on ahead. Larry and Robert followed behind him.
Sunday was the only day set apart for us slaves to rest, and to worship God. I wanted to go fishing in the worst way. I thought about it all day Saturday and I dreamt about bringing home a stringer of fish for Mama.
“Please Mama, the fish won't be biting after church service,” I begged her. “The sun will be too high!”
Mama gave me one of her stern looks. She could not pull it off. I began to laugh. Mama smile and chuckled. “All right, you can skip church just this one time, but never again! You understand me boy?”
“Yes ma'am, thank you, thank you!” I hugged Mama around her big soft tummy.
After I dried and put away the dishes, I went outside to gather up my bamboo fishing pole and worm bucket from under the porch floor. I knew big fat worms could be found behind the outhouses. I went to the one we used. I dug up a bucket full of worms.
Off I went into the woods, on the path leading to the creek running south across Parker Plantation. The trees were thick with leaves and it was dark. I always was scared walking alone in the woods. I imagined monsters hiding behind the trees, waiting to pounce on me, and gobble me up. I walked hurriedly halfway and I ran the rest of the way. I burst out of the woods, into a sunny green meadow.
Here in this open spot the grass grew thick, and green, and wild flowers were scattered all about. When I could breathe easily, I crossed to a spot in the creek where long ago it had been dammed up with fieldstones, creating a wide, deep pool, of clear water. We called it the Swimming Hole.
I sat down on a log and baited my hook with a fat worm. Threading the worm on the hook was a chore, for it wiggled like mad. I spit on the worm for luck and I cast it into the water. I sat real quiet, not moving much, so I would not scare any fish away. Two minutes passed with out a fish nibbling my worm.
Suddenly someone shouted my name. Startled I flung my fishing pole into the air, and jumped off the log turning around, ready to run for my life. To my horror, there stood Larry, and Robert, grinning like possums.
Why they had sneaked up on me, I did not know, but I knew instinctively it could not be good.
Mama's words of wisdom came to mind. “Any slave, wid a brain de size of a peanut, knows to stay clear of white boys, especially his Master’s sons.”
I lowered my head; in the humble manner, Mama had taught me to stand, in front of White people. She said, "Don't look White people in their eyes."
“Why can’t I look White people in dar eyes?”
“Cause, it be disrespectful. Sides, it’s like lookin a mad dog in his eyes. What you think dat mad dog’s gonna do, if you look him in his eyes?”
“Dat’s right boy, he gonna bite you.”
“We’ve been looking for you,” Robert said.
“It’s a good thing one of the boys saw you walking out of Black Bottom with your fishing pole, or we might never have found you,” Larry said.
“Why, you looking for me, sur?”
“Cause we want to play tag. It’s no fun playing by ourselves. Do you want to play with us?” Robert asked.
It surprised and frightened me that they wanted to play with me, a lowly slave. I was positive my Mama would not approve. Besides, it could be dangerous. All manner of horrible vision, flashed in my mind: They could drown me right here, or beat me with clubs, or maybe they planned to stew me up like mutton.
“We want to be your friend,” Robert said.
Mama said, “A slave has no business, being friends with White boys. No good can come of it, no sur! Playing with White boys is like petting a diamondback rattlesnake on his head.”
“No, sir,” I don’t wanna play tag,” I blurted out hoping they would go away and let me get back to my fishing.
“What did you say?” Larry said, his eyes narrowing down to slits. “Don’t mumble. Spit it out!”
I shuttered, for I could hear the sound of annoyance in Larry’s voice. That was not good. “I...I...I'm sor...sorry sur. But, I can’t play wid you today.”
“Why can’t you play with us? We’re going to have lots of fun,” Robert said.
“I have to go ask my Mama.” I glanced up and saw Larry's mouth twisted in a mad way. I prayed that they would let me go ask Mama's permission. If they did, it would be the last time they saw me.
“All right,” Robert said, “you go ask your Mama.”
“Yes, sir, I’ll go ask her right now.”
God blessed me; they were going to let me go! I hurried passed them proud that I had tricked them. I forgot what the good book says. “Pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”
“Good, we’ll just tag along with you,” Larry said.
I turned around. They were right behind me.
“I better go alone, sur.”
“Why don’t you want us to go with you?” Robert said narrowing his eyes.
“Cause, I...ah...my Mama,” my mind went blank, I found no excuse.
“What’s the matter Casey? Cat got your tongue?” Larry said grinning.
“We’ll just tag along. Soon as your Mama says you can play with us, we will have fun.” Robert said.
I took one step.
“Aren't you forgetting something, “Larry said.
"Your fishing pole and worm bucket,"
"Oh yea," I picked up my pole, wound the string around it, removed and tossed away a perfectly good worm. We walked into the woods, Larry on my left side, Robert on my right side.
Fifteen minutes later, we came to Black Bottom slave quarters, where I lived with Mama in one of the thirty clapboard cabins.
The cabins are small, one-room buildings, with tiny front porches, room enough for a chair or two, and a swing. Every cabin door and window frame is painted a Royal Blue color to keep out evil spirits.
We had arrived just before church service. The drummers sat on chairs lined up in the middle of the street. They cradled pots and pans upon their laps, held drumsticks in their hands. These men beat a frantic rhythm for the dancers of a religious ceremony call, ‘The Shout Out.’
Participants of the Shout Out danced holding their hands up to Heaven, chanting, and shouting prayers. After a time, one, by one, possessed by the Spirit, they fell to the ground. Their eyes rolled up in their heads, showing only the whites. They rolled around on the grown wailing in unknown tongues.
There were some people sitting out on their porches waiting for church service to begin. I saw one man shaking his head. I knew he was thinking that I must be crazy, to be in the company of two White boys. I couldn’t blame him any.
Halfway down the street, I could see Mama, and her friend Cleo, sitting out on the front porch talking. Mama glanced up and looking down the street, she saw us coming. A look of deep disappointment flashed across her chubby face. I wondered what she would say. I crossed my fingers for luck. I said a silent prayer that Mama would somehow save me.
When we were within hearing range, Larry called out, “Can Casey come and play with us?”
Mama hesitated only a moment, before she said, “Yes sur, Casey can go play with you.”
I was mortified. I could not believe my own Mama was feeding me to White boys.
“Casey, you be sure you home for supper, you hear?”
“Yes, ma’am, I will,” I said, but I doubted that I would be alive at suppertime.
I put away my fishing gear under the porch floor. Mama and Cleo sat silently watching me. They must have known by the look on my face that I was not happy.
“Come on Casey, let’s go,” Larry said. He grabbed onto my shirtsleeve and pulled me around like a dog on leash, and led me down the street. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Mama and Cleo watching us.
As we entered into the woods, a cold prickly shiver crawled slowly up my back. I walked with my head bent down, looking at my dirty, bare feet, plodding along. I could not help but noticed the fine shoes that Larry and Robert were wearing. They were beautiful, not a hole in them, or a scuffmark. Those shoes were polished bright and shinny. Robert and Larry were well dressed better than any man or boy in Black Bottom, and they were not even going to Church, or to a funeral.
At the creek, Larry led us below the dam, to a narrow and shallow spot. We crossed over on stepping-stones, and we climbed up the hill to the old oak tree.
“Let’s sit here under the Hanging Tree,” Larry said, and so we sat down and leaned up Against the tree trunk. Larry sat on one side of me, Robert on my other side. I tried not to look at them. I concentrated on my feet, and I wondered what horrible things they planned to do to me.
“Do you know why we picked you to play with us?” Larry asked.
“No sur,” I said not looking up at him.
“Because, of all father’s slaves, you are the whitest,” Larry said. "You are almost as white as we are." It was true and I was not proud of the lightness of my skin.
“And, you have green eyes just like ours,” Robert added.
I felt that they were ridiculing me, because of my lack of color. My pale skin had always been a burden to me. The older boys teased me and call me, Whitey.
One long hot summer, I got a tan. One of the boys, trying to be funny, said, "Casey, I think you are finally turning Colored."
My childish mind conjured up hope that perhaps the sun would darken me and make me more like everyone else. That summer, I went without a shirt or hat, and I wore cut offs. It turned out to be a terrible mistake. I got more than I bargained for. I burned, blistered, and had a terrible itch, which was impossible to scratch, under the water blisters, all over my body. Finally, when I peeled, I looked whiter than before.
How old are you Casey?” Larry asked.
“I’m seven sur.”
“I’m seven too,” Robert said.
“I’m eight,” Larry boasted.
“Do you want to play tag now?” Robert said.
I didn't want play tag with them, or anything else, but I had no choice.
“Yes sir, I guess so.”
“Stop calling us sir, we’re not old men,” Larry said.
“Yes sir, I mean…”
Robert and Larry burst out laughing. I worried that they were trying to trick me into not being respectful and would whip me for my insolence.
“Call me Larry, and call him Robert. I looked at his eyes to see if he were serious.
“You want me to call you Larry, and him Robert, sur?” I asked him, just to be sure.
“That’s what I just said, and drop the sir.”
“Come on let’s play tag,” Robert said. He jumped to his feet and slapped me hard on my head. “You’re it,” he shouted and he ran off.
Larry got to his feet, and ran away shouting, “Catch me if you can.”
I was slow to warm up to the game, and to Robert and Larry, but after a while, I was having fun playing tag with them. I lost some of my fear of them that day. I thought that maybe I was mistaken about them and that they were not the monsters I thought them to be. In truth, they seemed to be no different (except for their skins) from the boys in Black Bottom. Still, I was careful not to rile them.
Although Mama was dead-set against me having anything to do with Larry and Robert, she could not deny the wishes of her Master’s sons. She told Cleo, that she hoped that the Mistress would put an end to us being friends, before there was trouble.
Unfortunately, for everyone, they saw no harm in us playing together. Had they put a stop to it, as they most certainly should have, I might not be in jail right now.
As the months passed swiftly by, Larry, Robert, and I grew more comfortable with each other, thick as honey on a cold day.
On Sundays, after Church service, I grew accustom to them coming to get me. One Sunday, they were late. I waited for more than an hour for them. Hurt and disappointed, I went to visit Joshua.
Joshua was like the father I never had. He was old. His hair was a thick carpet of kinky white rings. His skin was thin as a sheet of writing paper, and thick veins showed clearly beneath. If he brushed lightly up against something, his skin ripped open and bleed. He always had bruises all over his arms.
His eyes drew you to them, for a thick smoky blue film covered both of them. He was as blind as an old dog I once saw, with the same affliction. That dog made his way around by smell. Joshua did not have the old dog’s sense of smell, but he had a keen sense of sound. Joshua could literally see with his ears.
As I approached his cabin, I saw Joshua sitting outside on his porch, sipping a cup of chicory, at his weaving table. Weaving was women’s work, but because Joshua was blind and could do little else, the Master put him to weaving to get some good out of him.
Joshua cocked his head listening. A big smile spread over his thick lips.
“Casey, my man, how is you this fine day?”
“I’m doing okay, I guess,” I said, climbing up the steps to the porch. I sat down at the table with him. Joshua could not see the frown on my face, or see the sag of my shoulders, but he could hear the glum tone of my voice.
“You sound a little out of sorts. What’s de matter, boy?”
“You ain’t playing wid Larry and Robert today?”
“They didn’t come to get me yet. I don’t like them anymore.”
“Don’t be dat way, Casey. Things happen. I bet dey had something to do up dar at de Big House. Don’t go wondering why they aren’t here. You just get yo self all worked up. Best wait and see what dey has to say.”
Joshua paused a moment, and I knew a story was coming. Joshua loved telling stories to illustrate the point he was trying to make.
“When I was a boy, bout your age, dar was dis big yellow dog dat hung around the quarters. I liked dat mangy mutt a whole lot. He didn’t belong to no one, so I thought of him as my dog. I named him Wolf, cause he looked like a wolf. Old Wolf slept out in de woods. In de mornings, when I got up from de table and went outside, I would give Wolf something to eat dat I saved from breakfast.
One morning, I came out of de cabin and dar was no sign of Wolf. I went looking everywhere for him, but I never did find him. I worried about Wolf all day long, den I got mad. I was thinking Wolf had gone off wid someone else, and didn’t care bout me no more.”
“Did Old Wolf ever come back?”
“No, he couldn’t come back.”
“Why couldn’t he come back?”
“Cause Old Wolf died. My friend found him in de woods.”
“How did Wolf die? Did a bear get him?”
“No, my friend said dar wasn’t a mark on him. I guess Wolf died of old age. He paused a moment then said, “Here’s what I’m tryin to say, Casey. Sometimes dar are things happen that we can’t do nothin bout. Wait until you know why Larry and Robert didn’t come and get you dis morning, fore you gets mad at dem.”
Fifteen minutes later, Robert and Larry came walking barefoot down the street, with fishing poles slung over their shoulders.
“Hello Casey,” Robert said waving. “Are you ready to go fishing?”
“No, I’m talking with Joshua right now.”
“Go fishin Casey, you and me can talk anytime. Bring me back a nice fat bass.”
“Come on, Casey. I got a fishing pole for you,” Robert held out a yellow bamboo-fishing pole rigged with line, a red and white float and a hook.
It was a fine-fishing pole and I did love fishin. My anger melted away. Although I would not admit it, I was overjoyed to see Robert and Larry. “All right, I guess I’ll go fishing with you.” I got up and went to them in the street. Robert handed me a fishing pole. I put it over my shoulder and we started walking. “Good-bye, Joshua, I’ll bring you back a fish, if I catch one.”
As we entered the woods and the path to the creek, I asked them why they were so late.
“Mother wouldn’t let us go. She told us it was time that we learned the 3 R’s,” Larry said.
“What’s de 3 R’s?”
“Readin’, writin’ and rithmetic,” Robert said. That’s why we’re late; we had to listening to a big old speech, bout how we needed to be educated."
“You have to learn de 3 R’s every Sunday?"
“No, Mother said, Monday through Fridays,” Larry said. “We get Saturday and Sundays off. Would you like to learn the 3R’s?”
I had to consider it. No one in Black Bottom could read or write. In fact, I had never seen a book in Black Bottom, not even the Holy Bible, except in the hands of the Circuit Preacher, who came to preach to us about being good slaves, every other month. Most everyone in Black Bottom could count, but only as high as the fingers on their hands and the toes on their feet.
“I don’t know if I wanna learn the 3RS.”
“I’ll ask Mother if she’ll teach you right along with us. After our studies, we will eat lunch and then go play. How would that be?”
Now that was something to consider. Like everyone else, I was curious to see inside the Big House. We had all heard, from those lucky slaves who lived and worked in the Big House, how wonderful it was in there. I did not want to miss my chance of seeing it.
“All right,” I guess I can learn the 3R’S.”
When we got to the Swimming Hole, we crossed over the creek, climbed up the hill, and sat down under the Hanging Tree. Larry bent his head back and looked up at the tree. “Do you know how this old tree got its name?”
I shook my head, no.
“A long time ago, a wagon full of settlers stopped here for water and they found three men hanging on ropes on that limb over there.” Larry pointed to a long thick limb, stretching out over the Swimming Hole.
“The crows had pecked their eyes out. Their shirts and trousers were rotted and raggedy. The settlers cut the bodies down and buried them under that big old stone on the bank over there.”
“Did they know who dey was and why dey got hanged?”
“Maybe they were rustlers who got caught. I don’t know. My granddaddy told me, that when he first got here, that stone had writing on it.”
“What did it say?”
“It said, “Under this stone lie three men's bones, found hanging on a tree, no one knows why, or who they be.”
“Really,” I said doubting him, for Larry liked making up stories.
“Yes, honest to God!” Larry said crossing his heart.
“He’s not making it up, Casey. That’s what Grandpa told us,” Robert said. “Did you know that this tree has a curse on it?”
“What kind of curse?”
“The curse says that anyone who climbs up in this tree will hang from it one day.” Robert said.
“Who says dat?”
“I don’t know lots of people. Isn't that right Larry?”
“Yea, that’s what they say, but it’s a load of horse shit.”
Larry got to his feet and he climbed up into the tree like a squirrel. He sat down on a big limb directly over Robert and me. He dangled his feet, swinging them from side to side, and grinning down at us.
“Come on up, Robert, if you ain’t chicken,” Larry called out.
“I’m not a chicken.” Robert yelled back. He smiled and he winked at me. Robert grabbed hold of a limb and he swung up on the tree like a monkey. He climbed over to where Larry was sitting and he sat down beside him. Now both Larry and Robert were looking down at me and grinning. I knew that they were going to challenge me to climb up that cursed tree.
“Are you coming up here or are you chicken?” Larry called to me.
“I ain’t chicken! I just don’t want to climb up there right now.”
I remembered what Mama told me long ago. Mama said, “You listen to me, boy. Don’t you ever be so foolish as to take a dare! Someone dares you to do somethin, you can bet it be somethin, you be crazy doing.”
“Casey’s chicken,” Robert and Larry sang out, taunting me, trying to get me to weaken, and climb up that tree. It was obvious that Robert and Larry did not know anything about magic and curses, or they would not be tempting the evil spirits so carelessly. I considered telling them, that they had better get down from that tree, but I knew that they would only laugh at me for believing in curses. They were White and ignorant, when it came to magic and curses.
We slaves believed in magic and curses. We are cautious to do what we can to prevent evil spirits from doing their worst to us. We paint windows and doors blue, and we turn mirrors to the walls when someone dies, to keep their souls from getting trapped. We believed in good and bad spirits, charms and curses. There is a good witch in Black Bottom and I have known her all my life. She is one of Mama's best friends. Her name is Labelle. She can make love charms and take away bad curses. So, I knew better than to climb up that tree and get myself hanged.
“Chicken, chicken, Casey’s a chicken,” they taunted me.
I would not look up at them. I covered both of my ears with my hands to muffle out their jeering. Larry and Robert finally tired of the game. They climbed down from the tree, and we walked back down the hill to the creek. We sat down on a log, put worms on our hooks, and began to fish.
I caught three nice bluegills and two big fat bass that day. I gave one of the bass to Joshua. Joshua was most appreciative. Mama scaled and cleaned the rest of my catch. She dusted them in cornmeal, salt, and pepper, dunked them in egg, and plopped them in three inches of boiling, splattering, bacon grease, and fried them up golden brown and crisp. They tasted great.
That night I had a nightmare. In my nightmare, I came out of the woods at the creek and found Larry and Robert hanging over the Swimming Hole. Crows sat on their shoulders pecking out their eyes.