In the last hours before dawn, the wind freshened from the north, bringing gray clouds and a promise of snow. The white mansion, cloaked in darkness, sat nestled among ancient oaks. Behind the house a narrow path wound through the trees, and down to a bubbling creek where it ended. On the far bank connected by a rickety bridge were six old cabins. Candlelight flickered from the window of one.
Inside the cabin, coals hissed from a dying fire. Huddled across the room in icy shadows was a young Negro woman. She struggled to stand, leaned against the cabin wall. Gathering herself, she pushed away, swaying like a drunken woman. She moved close to the fire. She dropped to the cold earthen floor, faced the hearth and closed her eyes.
The pain came in short bursts. She turned on her back, raised her legs above the hearth and let her heels settle on the sooty surface. Sweat glistened on her brow like pearl droplets, curling in rivulets into her kinky hair. “Oh, Lord!” she screamed and a bloody baby boy slid from her. Reaching between her legs she gathered him into her arms and warmed his naked body.
She named him Venture. The year was 1850.
* * * * * *
Eighty-four years later a soft breeze swirled down from the Arkansas hills. It cooled the lowlands as it passed, stirring leaves laden with color around the feet of the Reverend Moses Jackson. The solemn man of God standing over Venture’s grave spent little time in finishing his lackluster eulogy. He closed his bible as the men loosened their grip on the ropes beneath the knotty pine coffin and lowered Venture into his final resting place.
The year was 1934.
The only spectator to Venture’s funeral, was young itinerant Woodrow Cobb who watched slouched against an ancient oak tree. Later he sat alone on the porch of Venture’s cabin out of the wind. Early evening shadows lengthened and vanished. When he could no longer see, he stood, went inside and closed the door behind him.
The room was musty and smelled of smoke. Fireplace coals glowed giving sparse light and no warmth. Woodrow stoked the dying fire until sparks danced up and out the chimney. He lit a stubby candle and sat it on the log mantle. He pulled Venture’s rickety rocker closer to the fire and eased into it. Settled, he let his glance move about the tiny room filled with fire-shadows.
It had been four days since he walked the dusty roads of Arkansas and saw Venture’s ramshackle old house nestled on the brink of a low hill, gray smoke curling from a rock chimney. Hoping for a meal, Woodrow hailed the cabin, the loudness startling napping birds that twittered and flew away.
.There was no reply. A steep path wound upward from the road through knee-high weeds. Footsore and hungry, Woodrow climbed the trail to the cabin. He stopped short of the porch when he saw an old man perched atop a cane chair, eyes closed, chest rising and falling in slow cadence.
“Howdy mister,” Woodrow said, hoping not to startle him awake.
His eyes opened. A glistening black face stared at him. His chair thumped down. He rose and stood on wobbly legs.
“I was jus’ passin’ by,” Woodrow explained, arms stretched wide, “ saw that smoke hangin’ over the cabin . . .” he smiled, “thought there might be somebody to home and maybe a hot meal up here.”
The old man ignored him. The sun was low behind the trees when Woodrow scratched his head, “I could stay the night, little late to be leavin’. I’ll sleep in the barn. Whatcha’ say?”
In the barn he found a warm corner piled high with hay where just before he lay down to sleep he wondered if the man might be tetched in the head.
Woodrow managed to stay on a few days, promising to earn his keep. The first day he cut and stacked firewood. The second day he repaired the leaky roof and cleaned the barn. The old man uttered not a word. He just sat on the porch and watched Woodrow sweat. Frustrated, Woodrow drew a bucket of cool cistern water, washed his face and went down the hill. He walked at a steady pace for a mile, temper sparking.
He was back in an hour. The old man hadn’t moved. His mind made up, Woodrow blurted, “I’m leavin’ in the mornin’.”
The old man panicked. He knew that if Woodrow left it would be his last chance to tell the true story of Venture Washington. But how?
A plan took shape in his head. A smile parted his thick lips, and he went to bed.
On the third morning Woodrow awoke to a commotion of clattering hooves outside the barn door.
“May! June! Yaw’ll lazy no counts mules . . . step up!” It was Ventures raspy voice.
Woodrow raised up on one arm, “what in tarnation is goin’ on?” He ran his fingers through his unruly hair, scattering straw on the barn floor. Staggering to the door he saw Venture astride a bony mule.
“Gitup!” He yelled, and kicked the mule in the side.
“Whata’ ya know.” A surprised Woodrow exclaimed.
Venture stopped at the front of the house, slid down, dropped the halter and climbed the porch steps, settling in his chair.
A quick glance made sure that Woodrow was near. He crooked his finger and beckoned him closer. He leaned forward, staring hard at his mules. His mouth opened . . .
“Mules pay ’tention when I tawk’s tuh yaw’ll.” His voice deliberate, “I is Venture Washington . . . born ‘bouts 1850 somewhere’s in Tennessee. I is eighty-fo’ and this is my story you is ‘bout to hear. So listen up.”
Woodrow sat on the step. Holy smoke, he thought, what next?
“I wus born a slave chil, de oldest of fo’ boys. I wus a field hand almos’ befo’ I could walk. Thas all I ever knew.
I reckin’ it long ‘bout de time I wus ‘lebum, they wus talk goin’ roun’ ‘bouts a war.”
“Anyways, everythin’ wus changin’ for us ‘roun’ there mighty fast. Wasn’t long befo’ Massa Bonnet got's awful mean to us, mo’ than usual. Us po’ slaves just thought he was a worryin’ too much ‘bouts the war and takin’ it out on us. The mo’ I thinks ‘ bout it the mo’ I thinks he wus just downright scairt stiff of us’un. ‘Fraid we run off or do somethin’ even worse’n.”
“What’s goin’ on with him?”
“Don’t guess I needs to tell you we tried real hard to stay outin’ Massa Bonnet’s way. Got so bad we got’s to walkin’ ‘roun’ kindly hang dawg, you know what I means? Kep’ our kinky heads pointed at de ground whisperin’ low to each other so’s nobody could hear. We wus awful scairt of dem skittery white folks in dem days awright. Ceptin’ for . . .
My old Pappy. Massa Bonnet and Pappy never did like each other much. Pappy was a trouble maker aw’right. Mos’ times he was like a crazy yeller bee a’buzzin’ ‘roun’ Massa’s head, jus’ waitin’ fo a good swattin’. It pleasure him a whole lot to see Massa red in de face, madder than a old rooster.
Venture paused, his head moving slowly up and then down, remembering . . .
Massa catch him makin’ fun sometimes and beat him with a quirt ‘til he wus bleedin’ bad. If’n’ you ask me I don’t think my Pappy wus ever scairt of Massa Bonnet. He wus awful stubborn. And then de day come . . .”
“Massa stay drunk aw de time and kinda crazy, like a old mad dawg afoamin’ at de mouth. He come down the hill mos’ ever night raisin’ cane, bent on hurtin’ some po’ body. Thas how my old Pappy finally got kilt. It happen late one night . . .”
Venture sucked in his breath, blew his nose and wiped his eyes.
“ We hear somebody a comin’ down the path, cussin’ way loud. Figger he drunk on whiskey. It been rainin’ sum. I remember it awful hot and sticky. Stiflin’ in dem old cabins, so’s we’s all be outside, sittin’ ‘roun’ talkin’, swattin’ pesky skeeters, waitin’ for it to coo.
‘Bout’s that time I seen lantern glow up on de hill comin’ down our way, bouncin’ and bobbin’ off all dem trees and I knows they is trouble aplenty aheadin’ my way. Sho nuff it was Massa Bonnet on one of his rampages. He comin’ right for the shacks. ‘Bout’s that time I got real scairt and run off. I hid in the dark.
I watch old Massa Bonnet staggerin’ ‘roun’ fallin’ down in de mud, yellin’ an a hollerin’ plum full a meanness. My old Pappy jus’ standin’ there watchin’ him come. Massa Bonnet walk right up to him taken his pistol outin’ his belt and with no warnin’ ataw shoots my Pappy in the head.
Pappy jus’ look surprised and fall over his face spurtin’ blood. His eyes wus wide open, starin’ big as silver dollars. Massa Bonnet jus’ laugh. Nobody say nothin’ nohow. We to scairt.”
Venture paused. When he spoke again it was almost a whisper.
“They ain’t no words for how I feel when I saw him shot so’s I ain’t even gonna try to tell yaw’ll.”
Woodrow had trouble hearing him. He leaned forward.
“Massa Bonnet wrong to kill my Pappy the way he did. I hates him for it! My mind done gone crazy that night. I kep’ on sayin’ over and over in my head . . . yaw’ll got to revenge your old Pappy’s dyin’. Never did tho.
De very next day, outin’ pure meanness, I swore my mouth shut forever.
“So that’s it! He made a promise and never broke it. Amazin’!
Two mo’ years go by befo’ the war be over in ‘65. Two mighty hard years. My mouth stay shut aw that time. My Mammy real sad with me not tawkin’, thinks I sick. I truly sorry ‘bouts that. All that fightin’, it takin’ a toll on Massa Bonnet, he jus’ barely alive. He took losin’ mighty hard. Never saw him no mo’. He stay up to the big house aw de time.!
An then one day I jus’decide to up and leave. Figured I ain’t doin’ no good where I was. So’s I jus’ walk’s away. Never told nobody goodbye, not even my Mammy. I’s ‘bout sixteen, I guess.
I nearly starved. Law! I walk aw de way to Arkansas and stopped where I is now. That almos’ seventy years ago. Moved in this old cabin jus’ befo’ de fust cold spell come down from de north.”
Venture’s mood was changing. Emotion rose in his throat like vomit.
“Now I is old. No friends or nothin’ jus’ cause I swore I never talk no mo’. People think I weird. Never saw my mammy or my brothers no mo’ neither. I kinda sad ‘bout’s that. I wonder what happen to dem? And now . . .
I don’t feel good mos’ de time, bones achin’, innards churnin’ ‘roun’ all de time. Sometimes I lay up in bed two, three days . . .cain’t hardly eat. Ain’t got nobody to hep. Only my mules. They no count to nobody.”
Was he giving up?
“I mighty tired. I done nuff tawkin’. Whew! Where this old wind come from? I freezin’. May, June, you good fo nuthin’ old mules, git! Go on back to de barn. I goin’ inside and res.’”
Venture stood on wobbly legs and shuffled through the door and closed it behind him. Thin wisps of black smoke rose from the lamplight near his bed, casting eerie shadows on the far wall. The fire had burned down and the room was cool.
Woodrow followed Venture. With a steady hand he draped a thin blanket around his sagging shoulders and led him across the room to his bed. Woodrow took off his shoes and placed them neatly under it. He laid him down like a baby easing his head onto his pillow and covered him with tattered quilts. It was not long before Venture’s eyes closed. His breathing shallowed. A wheezing sound came up and out of his mouth. He was asleep. Outside the wind moaned a mourning cry through Venture’s beloved oaks.
Woodrow awoke the next morning with the sun streaming through feed sack curtains that covered the window beside Venture’s bed. He had slept fitfully in Venture’s rocker, pulled close to the old man’s bed. He looked at his purple-black face. He touched his cheek. It was cold. He was not breathing. Sometime during the night Venture began his journey to another place.
It was noon on the fourth day. Woodrow was leaving. He fed the mules oats and turned them out. He opened the broken gate and closed it behind him. He walked down the path through knee high brittle-brown grass to the road below. Striding straight ahead, his shoes stirring puffs of dust, he could only hope that someone would see the wooden cross and what he had written upon it.
Born 1850- Died 1934
A MAN OF FEW WORDS_____________________________________
Written By Ron Richardson
July 22, 2003
Ron is a navy veteran, college graduate and retired air traffic controller. He ia a member of Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc. He hosts a fiction writers critique group. He has been published by LITBITS, ESCI, Powder Burn Flash and Fiction on Line.