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  • Bernard James (bio)

I never did listen too well. I had no time for wasteful conversation, and I didn't care about certain things that should've made me afraid. When I made up my mind, it was as good as made up, and if you tried to tell me different, I'd just lower my head and butt harder than before. Lawrence was more sensible—sometimes an appeaser, always a peacemaker. You could count on my brother to step through his options first; to think a thing through before making any move. In this way, he and I were nothing alike, but most times, my way proved to be the right one, and for that reason, Lawrence always listened to me.

They would easily kill a slave for what we'd just done. We weren't slaves anymore, but every chance them planters got, they liked to remind us of how things used to be. Share croppin' was only a slightly less evil system that saw us still bound to the white man and his land. Black codes governed the day, and to hear daddy tell it, them Freedman's Bureau labor agreements never did amount to much of anything.

Now, daddy had been a slave, already fifteen years by the time the war ended. He remembers what it was like on the Montrose plantation; the before and the after. The promises and the lies; bondage invisible, but present still. In fact, to hear him tell it, we'd never really stopped being slaves, but were too busy trying to survive to focus on the distinction. At the time of the incident, daddy had slowed down a lot, the difference in his and momma's ages showing up in obvious ways. He didn't have to worry though. I did whatever had to be done so they would never suffer from any need.

This time was no different.


The wooden handle was warm in my hand. I wiped blood from the blade onto my pant leg, and tucked it behind the seat. The wagon moved forward, creaking with the strain of the extra load. We were traveling an unfamiliar path, and without good light, we would have to move carefully.

"You sure about this, Jacob?"

"We out here now," I said to my brother.

"He covered?" Lawrence asked.

"Wrapped up tight," I said. I knew Lawrence was gonna' worry me to death. Knew he'd insist on praying before we set out, and would spend more time giving thanks once we safely returned; but he's the one I needed. My other brothers (there were six in all) would have either tried to talk me out of it, or else they just didn't follow directions good. No, it was Lawrence I wanted. Lawrence came with his own risks, but he was the only one I [End Page 27] could count on when you got right down to it. What we were doing was dangerous, and if anything went wrong, he's the one I needed backing me up.

"These horses wanna' let loose, Jacob."

"Not too fast," I warned. We had to stay on the path, but I also wanted to keep a steady pace; not give the impression we were running to or from something.

"Who gonna' be out here this time a' night?" he asked.

"We know how things run at Montrose," I said. "But not the Douglas or Mason plantations."

"Jacob, it's two in the mornin'."

"You never know," I said. "You just never know."

"I thought you said nobody'd be out here?"

"I said it was unlikely."

"A torch would help."

"No light, Lawrence. I done already told you that."

"Wouldn't have to be a big one," he said. I needed to concentrate, and Lawrence needed to shut his mouth.

"Bruh . . . no light. Dark as it is out here . . . don't matter how small the torch's flame. They will see us." For a second, I thought my words had finally reached him, but that's not what did it. That wasn't it at all.

"I just wish . . ." In that blink-of-an-eye moment, several things...


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pp. 27-33
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