“The pain of an injustice great enough may scar the surrounding domain itself, setting in motion a rage that echoes across that anguished plot throughout all the ages.” – Algonquin Proverb
No place so far north in America feels so like the deep South as does Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Cut off by the great Chesapeake Bay from roads better traveled, it languishes in a slower time, forgotten; spread wide with fallow fields, dark woods and long-rotted plantations. Its languid pace, though, betrays a time when the land held a nightly race; a race of fear and hope, death and survival, deliverance and evil; it’s prize: enslavement or freedom. You’ve likely heard stories from this strip of land, stories of the underground railroad, of bloodhounds and torches, of Tubman and her bravery, but, like many of it’s inhabitants, not every story has freed itself from this woebegone land. The following account, taken from a time when the very oldest of people you know were yet small children, is one such story. It is an account of three local scoundrels, each unaware that terrific injustice often gives rise to a terrible justice.
Rowing hard, that long ago day, against the outgoing tide of the Wye River is as apt a place as any to descend upon the precarious lives of the men bought into our focus. Boats did not head upstream this time of day; certainly not this late in October. The three men pretended to ignore the concerned and questioning glances of the fishermen riding the tide back to St. Michaels. What good purpose, under ethereal clouds, grey clouds that hastened away the already foundering light day, could three men have aiming upstream toward the mouth of old Pickering Creek? The answer was none.
Of course, dear reader, these men meant to return home that night using darkness as their ally, but we know that’s not how darkness works? Is it? The vexing thing is, on a primal and subliminal level, these men knew it too, and an edge of paranoia shortened their thoughts and disjointed the fair and jovial bonds they normally felt for each other while boozing on the porch rockers back home.
“I hope we ain’t goin’ where I hope we ain’t goin’.”
“Pipe down, Curtis.”
“I’m just saying, Pa, there’s plenty of other coves.”
“But none so forsaken and so secluded. “
“Christ, we are goin’ there!”
“And there ain’t nothing changing it, Curtis. They’s already waiting there for us.”
“Afraid of children’s stories, Curtis?” smiled the other man.
“You’re dad’s the one that told ’em to me, Uncle Sebbie.”
“And his dad told them to us. They’re just stories.”
“They weren’t stories to grandpa’s pa. He lived them – or more accurately, failed to live through them.“
“Ain’t no nigger killed my grandpa, boy,” his father snapped. “He died a hero – runnin’ Scott’s blockade in the war.”
“What was that?” teased Uncle Sebbie, hastily looking about and feigning fright. “Did I just hear a baby cryin’?”
“Pipe down, Sebbie and keep rowing. I don’t need Curtis being quick-triggered. Not this evening. It’s our last run and we’re going to make the most of it.”
“When you’re headed out to kill other men, don’t you wanna be quick-triggered?”
“I want Curtis calm so they won’t be suspicious until it’s too late.”
“You changed the usual trading location. Isn’t that suspicious enough? And, what if this ain’t the last time we need to buy their hooch? Prohibition ain’t over yet, brother.”
“It will be soon. Virginia ratified that blasted amendment this week and our own state just last week. Only seven more states and we’re through bootleggin’. The Volstead Act won’t survive the year and neither will this enterprise. We need to come out of this evening with their boat, their booze and both sides’ money.”
“I never shot from a rowboat before, Pa. It might affect my aim.”
“Pipe down, Curtis. Their boat is bigger and more steady. You’ll shoot ’em after you board them to help unload the barrels.”
“He’ll be unloading barrels, all right!”
“Shhhhh! We’re getting close.”
Floating red and yellow maple leaves popped with color against the deep black water of the cove. Tall grass reeds blurred the water’s muddy edge in front a line of woods which grew thick on all sides with the exception of a break where an overgrown field stretched uphill to an old abandoned house almost totally obscured by an onslaught of dried vegetation. In the center of a break in the wood-line, as if the other trees wanted nothing to do with it, stood a solitary oak tree. A remnant from a different time, its trunk twisted against storms from a century the others hadn’t witnessed. You’d think it dead by its pale color and the amount of bark left upon it, but here and there at the tips of its craggily branches, a few stubborn tufts of leaves held on. The saddest part of this tree’s unfortunate story could be read in the bulges and tourniquets of its limbs, inside of which lay buried the fragments of rope upon which hung the unjust and unfortunate end of many a terrified man. As if the tree could be missed without it, one last piece of ornamentation adorned its timbers, a chain, rusted and wrapped around it’s core, weaving in and out of its flesh and disappearing at last, along with the roots, into the black mirror of the water’s edge.
The old tree was the last thing young Curtis wanted to look upon, but remained the one thing from which he could not take his attention. Even when the bodies of the Canadian bootleggers dropped limp to the boat deck, his prayers for forgiveness were directed not at his poor victims bleeding out before him, but instead, to that old oak. And all might have passed without further incident if, while these devils weighted down and dumped the bodies into the water, a young black boy headed home with his dog and fishing pole had not strolled whistling from a path in the woods into the clearing on the bank to witness the scene.
Uncle Sebbie was already paddling strokes long and hard toward the boy in the clearing when his brother shouted, “Get him! Get that little nigger and string him up!” Terrified the boy dropped his fishing pole and took flight for home. The boy’s dog remained and barked at the oncoming attacker, while father and son in the boat started it’s engine and made haste toward the bay to make landfall on the opposite side of the peninsula, cutting off the boys retreat from behind.
Uncle Sebbie’s leap from the rowboat carved his boots deep into the muddy bank. That fact braced him against the unbalanced pistol shot he levied at the boy who fled into the path in woods on the far side of the clearing. The shot missed, and Uncle Sebbie pulled his boots from the sucking mud, climbing the bank to beneath the old oak. He took aim with his revolver at the barking hound, but was startled by the rattle of a chain behind him. He turned and rising from beside the sinking rowboat was the figure of a man who turned him a color white that even his racist heart could not approve. Black, laborious muscles flexed wet as they pulled free the chain from the tree. Mud and water trickled from its mouth and ran down a rope burned neck to where the scars of a hundred lashes crept over powerful shoulders. When a breeze kicked up, it fluttered free the red autumn leaves from it’s face and revealed a set of unhappy eyes as wide and white as full moons, yet free from any iris or pupil that might give window to a soul. That the vision raged for vengeance was clearest in a mouth twisting around clenched teeth that held back the moan of sorrow-tinged anger. It was when the soggy baby it held in its right arm began to cry that Uncle Sebbie’s heart gave out and he collapsed to the ground, dead. The risen-man flicked his wrist, sending the attached chain around the most tortured limb of the old oak tree and swung himself mightily to shore. He ran with the heart of an escapee. The boy’s hound galloped beside him.
The fleeing boy leapt over ditches and down branches; his arms, scraped by thorn and thistle. It was already dark in the woods, but from the path he could see the last of the evening light hitting the boat on the water speeding round the bend of the shore in front of him. Home was yet a half mile off when he saw the two figures climbing up the bank of the shore and into his path. He took cover in a shield of roots pulled up by a fallen tree.
“We know you’re there, boy! We can hear your panting and cryin’! No use hiding! No need to hide, in fact! You didn’t see what you think you saw! Come on out, will ya, and let us set the story straight?!”
Curtis listened to his father’s lies while he watched in disbelief at the speed of his father’s hands as they tied a perfect noose without so much as a glance from his eyes. How many times had he done this before, he wondered?
“Go flush him out, Curtis,” his pa whispered. “He’s near that downed tree. Don’t shoot him though. There’s nigger houses not too far off that’ll hear the shot and might come lookin’.”
Curtis crept down the path in the dark toward the fallen tree. A distant bothersome noise froze him in his tracks so that his stillness might let him better hear. No. Please, God no, he thought. Whatever it was had stopped. Perhaps, he’d imagined it. He took a tentative step. The noise returned only this time it descended louder and less unmistakable. It was the echoing wail of a baby accompanied by the thuds of swift moving footsteps through crunching leaves. Curtis no longer feared death. He wanted it to come. What he feared was what would happen in the length of time before it would come. When the ghastly black figure, wreaking of vengeance, dashed into view, Curtis soiled himself, both front and back. He fell to his knees. Waiting for the death blow, he closed his eyes. Deafened by a wave of gunshots volleyed from behind him, Curtis took hope that his father had saved him from the descending creature. He opened his eyes to see the dark figure stopped nearly directly above him swinging his long chain in a circle over his head. Each time the chain came around, the shackle it clung to clicked against the exposed bone of his wrist. When its metal picked up the speed of a proper fury, the chain was sent loose, finding a spool in the neck of the man with the now empty gun. Round and round wound the wet rusty chain, tight and true. Plow hands, with strength to spare, had little trouble jerking the chain with a swiftness to pull through bone and flesh, and head and body fell separated.
The hound found his boy and washed him with kisses. The stunned boy peeked around the downed stump as the dark figure dragged Curtis screaming toward his father’s corpse, picked up the rope noose and placed it over his head. The cries died out as the rope tightened, but the boy watched in horror as Curtis flailed and kicked, dragged slowly back in the direction of the cove and old oak tree. The horrific figure pulled with purpose until out of sight, his terrible baby seemingly appeased.
The boy and his dog made it home and told his father and great-grandfather of the account. Though the boy begged him not to go, his amazed father lit a lantern and went out into the night in search of bodies, booze, boats, fishing poles and cash.
“I’m proud of you, boy,” said the boys great-grandfather.
“Why should you be proud of me, G-G-Pop?”
“Because you hold no hate in your heart.”
“I hate those men.”
“No, you don’t. Not really. If you did, Charlie wouldn’t have let you live. Charlie knows hate, and there ain’t enough room in the world for all he’s got and that of anyone else’s too. Make no mistake, your father will find that young man hangin’ in that old oak.”
“G-G-Pop, who’s Charlie?”
“He’s one that Moses left behind.”
“But, I thought Mrs. Tubman never lost a soul.”
“She didn’t. You and I know exactly where his tormented soul is, don’t we? Now, child, come get warm with me by the fire and let me tell you the tale of poor Chesapeake Charlie. It all began when I was a just a boy. A slave like so many others in these parts…”