Pleasant Hill

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Chapter VI

Eight days before Tim went on the run, Emily mailed out two letters. One was to Mr. and Mrs. Etheridge up on Rich Mountain, letting them know that they would soon have another visitor. The other was to a man named Daniel Tucker, who was the pastor of a small church just south of St. Louis, Missouri. Tucker and his wife had once been slave owners, but in the decade before the war they joined the abolitionist movement and freed their slaves. Some they kept as hired workers in their small upholstery business, the rest they gave money to travel north. In her letter to the Etheridges, whom the Tuckers knew quite well, Emily Hawkins asked that they give young Tim the Tuckers’ address when he was ready to leave their farm. She did not tell Tim this because she wanted him to stay focused on the first part of his dangerous journey. In her letter to the Tuckers, she gave them details of the situation, asking that they correspond with the Etheridges and assist Tim in the last leg of his search to find his brother. And of course in both letters she asked them to please pray unceasingly. “Always be praying,” she wrote.

Late in the afternoon after Tim’s flight to freedom, three white men showed up at the Hawkins farm. One was the local sheriff, Austin Wilhyte, a childhood friend of David’s. The other two were top overseers from the Belcher plantation, mean, nasty-looking men with grim, sour looks on their faces. They both carried scatterguns and pistols. One had shackles attached to a length of chain slung over his shoulder.

“Howdy Austin,” said Emily, from the porch. “What can I do for you?”

“Emily,” said Wilhyte, dismounting his horse and removing his hat. “We got us a problem. A slave boy done run off from the Belcher plantation.”

“We found one’a da Belchers’ rowboats down at da mouth’a da bayou,” said one of the overseers, also dismounting, but leaving on his hat. “We go’n have’a look around, Emily.”

Emily reached inside the front door and pulled out her own scattergun.

“I don’t usually make promises to men I don’t know,” she said, raising the weapon to her eye, aiming at the overseer’s crotch. “But I promise, if ya take one single step on my property or address me common again, I’ll put a load a squirrel shot right between your legs. Now get back on your horse and let the sheriff here do his work.”

“Do like she says, Ben,” said Wilhyte when the man hesitated, his gun hand twitching. “I’ll have’a look around, if ya don’t mind, Emily.”

“Course not, Austin,” said Emily, lowering the gun as the overseer got back on his horse, his face flushed with fear and humiliation. “Go right ahead.”

After a quick look through the barn and stable, Wilhyte stopped at the slave quarter and spoke briefly with Sarah, Jacob and Isaac; he’d known them since he was a boy. He glanced around the trees that bordered the field, then walked back to his horse.

“He’s not here,” he said calmly. “Sorry for the trouble, Emily.”

“He could be in that house,” said Ben, glaring and pointing toward Emily.

“He’s not in the house,” Wilhyte said angrily, before turning back to Emily, tipping his hat. “Sorry to bother ya, Emily. Heard from David lately?”

“Got a letter from him just the other day. They’re in Corinth, Mississippi. About to head up into Tennessee.”

“Well, I hope he’s aw’right.”

“Me too, Austin. Me too.”

Through the spring and summer Emily received more letters from David. She learned of the terrible defeat at Shiloh and her husband’s broken leg. Though greatly relieved he had survived such horrific carnage, she could not understand why he had not been sent home after such an injury. News of the 13th’s demise hit the area like a sinister, ominous wind. At street corners she would often come face-to-face with new widows, bereaved and tearful. For days she spent hours alone praying and weeping, her arms wrapped around herself, imagining him there holding her. Wanting only to reach out and touch him, comforting his wounded body. To lie with him, whispering sweetly, calling him darling.

By summer she got word that her husband’s leg had healed to a large degree, but he was in Virginia holding the rank of captain commanding of his own company. He told her of daring raids made deep into Union-controlled areas, riding circles around his former boss, the U.S. Cavalry. She also heard of horrible battles in places like Mechanicsville, Fraysers Farm and Malvern Hill. Great and terrible days of saga. In one letter he explained in great detail his first time seeing the new general in command of the Confederate troops.

Imagine, if you can my dear wife, Santa Claus in a gray suit with a brimmed hat. Off his food for a bit and lacking the jolly demeanor. Perched atop a pale, ash-spotted horse, instead of being pulled in a sleigh by flying reindeer. That is Robert E. Lee. Though by no means warm or affectionate, his eyes possess a thoughtful glimmer of wisdom and cunning, appropriate to our cause. Surely he will emerge as one of the great generals of history. His heart, however, remains a mystery. In the end, I fear, it will be found stony at best.

As the papers told of more epic battles in the east, she agonized alone, never showing this to her slaves. Then a letter would come, grasped like a precious stone, held tight to her breast as she looked up crying quietly to the sky, “He’s alive. He’s alive.”

By late September, word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Louisiana. Emily read what she could about Lincoln’s decree, but the Southern slant on the Proclamation was confusing to her. Then she got a letter from Daniel Tucker stating that Tim had recently crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois wearing a new store-bought suit with a pocket full of hard-earned-cash. In the envelope was also a copy of a St. Louis newspaper that had the words of the Proclamation printed in it. After she read it, she went outside and told Jacob, Sarah and Isaac to take the day off. They were all invited to the house that night for dinner.

“I want to see that blue dress on you, Sarah,” she said. “Come on up to the house about five o’clock. Door’ll be open, just come on in.”

They showed up right on time looking a bit awkward in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. But Emily put them at ease with her warm smile and delightful charm. She had a baby chair set up for little two-year-old Rachel, something she bought herself years ago when she thought she was pregnant. Noah, who was then only five, had a couple of thick books and a pillow in his chair so he could sit up at the table. After Emily said the blessing, they enjoyed a juicy pot roast dinner with stewed carrots, mashed potatoes and gravy, turnip greens with ham hocks and cornbread. And for dessert, apple and peach cobbler. When everyone was finished eating, Emily cleared the plates, then came back with a bottle of blackberry wine for the adults, and a bottle of sarsaparilla for the children. She also had in her hand the St. Louis newspaper.

“Today is a very special occasion,” she said.

“Well, we knows dat, Miss Emily,” said Isaac with a big grin. “We jus’ don’t knows what fer.”

“Yeah,” said Sarah. “Dis is aw’mos like Christmas.”

“Or da Foth’a Jew’ly,” Ruth said.

“Actually it’s bigger than both of those.” She held up the paper. “I’m gonna read y’all something. It’s called the Emancipation Proclamation and it’s the official words of President Abraham Lincoln. Emancipation means to set free from bondage or slavery. A proclamation is an official statement made into law.”

She read them the whole decree, realizing they would understand little of its words. But when she got to the part that said, “Thence forward and forever free,” she added emphasis, paused and looked at them from across the table.

“Do y’all understand what this means?” she asked.

“Dat mean we free, Miss Emily?” asked Jacob.

“That’s right,” she said. “Now, it won’t actually be official here in Louisiana till the first of the year. And maybe not until the war’s over. But what I’ve decided is to take y’all up to that farm up in Arkansas. I also know a man in St. Louis who’ll give y’all jobs making furniture. You can make money and learn a trade. And if you want, you can cross the river into Illinois, where there hasn’t been any slavery for a long, long time.”

They were silent for a while, looking at one another, then back at Emily. Finally Sarah stood with a sad, hurt look on her face. She fumbled with her hands, looking at Isaac, then her husband, then her three children.

“Miss Emily, ’member when I didn’t wanna take dis here blue dress, an’ ya axt me not ta talks to ya like dat. An’ ya saids it hurt ya inside?”

“Yes, Sarah. I remember that.”

“An’ ya said we weren’t no trouble, an’ we’s a bless’n.” Sarah paused, looking at Emily. “Well, I wish ya wouldn’t talk to us like dat. Hurt me inside, an’ I tink it maybe hurt dem inside, too. You’sa bless’n ta us. I don’t wanna go nowheres else. I wanna stay here wit’ chew, Miss Emily.”

Emily Hawkins stood silent, tears showing in her eyes. Slowly she sank into her chair, put her face in her hands and began to cry very hard.

“I’m so sorry, Sarah,” she sobbed. “I wouldn’t know what to do if y’all left. But I can’t just keep ya here, if ya wanna go. I miss’m so much. I miss David so much.”

They had never seen her like this. Falling apart right in front of their eyes. They gathered around her as she slumped in the chair crying like a child. Sarah slowly laid herself across Emily’s back, wrapping her arms around the poor distraught woman. Jacob, Isaac and Ruth placed their hands on her, as if trying to heal her of some dreadful disease. Little Noah and Rachel also stood close by, touching their sibling, transferring what small energy they might have, doing their part to cast out the grief that had befallen their sweet master.

“We ain’t go’n nowheres, Miss Emily.” Sarah whispered into her ear. “Don’t ya fret none. We wants ta stay here. Dis be our home.”

“Das right, Miss Emily,” said Isaac. “An’ don’t fret none ’bout Massa David need’r. He go’n wup all dem Yankee-mens all bys’m self.”

“Yeah, Miss Emily,” said Ruth. “Dem Yankees don’t stan’a chance ’gainst Massa David.”

“Please don’t takes us nowheres, Miss Emily.”

When she heard little Noah’s voice she looked up, for the child very rarely spoke. She wiped the tears from her eyes and reached out, taking the boy’s tiny black face in her hands.

“I’m not gonna take ya anywhere ya don’t wanna go, Noah,” she said. “You’re gonna grow up a freeman and do great things.”

“Ma’n Pa named me aft’a dat man dat built dat big boat so’s he could save all da animals from da flood rains.”

“That’s right, they sure did,” she laughed, still holding back tears. Finally, she sat up in the chair pulling herself together. “Well now, it’s time for some wine and sarsaparilla for the children.”

Over the next year four more slaves were helped to freedom through the Hawkins farm. Two were another young couple from a large farm near Minden. They were afraid of being separated, so they were taking their chances on the run. Two more were brothers who had no immediate family. They were owned by the town blacksmith, a cruel man that beat and burned them for even the pettiest infractions. Both of these flights went off without a hitch, as they were planned even more carefully than before, bringing no suspicion to the farm. Emily would later learn that all four runaways made it safely to the Etheridge farm to wait out the winter. In the spring the young couple chose to stay at the farm, while the brothers headed for St. Louis to work in Daniel Tucker’s upholstery shop.

With amazing regularity, David Hawkins still wrote to Emily, sometimes in bundles of a dozen or more. Even though the South had won impressive victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the wins had come at a great cost to the beleaguered Confederate ranks. The men and material they were losing could not be replaced fast enough, while the North seemed to have unfathomable reserves of both.

At this rate, he told her despairingly in one letter, we could win every battle and still lose the war.

David’s letters began taking on a more grim light, and she feared for him daily. By 1863 the relentless General Grant was moving down the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River, maneuvering his army into a position to take Vicksburg. The letters then slowed to a trickle. In late-June she received his last letter that got through, which had been mailed a month earlier. He was riding under Jeb Stuart in Pennsylvania along the Maryland line, the Mason-Dixon line. In that letter, David seemed surprisingly upbeat and hopeful. But less than a week later, Lee was defeated at Gettysburg, and Grant finally took Vicksburg.

The cotton harvests of ’62 and ’63 were quite plentiful along the Red River. But since the capture of New Orleans, the crop was no longer floated down to be held in the great warehouses of the South’s most prosperous city, to be sold and shipped all over the world. Instead, all of the cotton in Northwest Louisiana was stored anywhere it could be kept safe and dry. Occasionally, moderate loads of the commodity found their way southwest through Texas on what was called “The Cotton Trail,” which wound its way from Dallas to Galveston at the coast. From there it was transported by land or sea to French-controlled Mexico. For a short while, Louisiana and Texas cotton had been floated down the Sabine River to the Gulf of Mexico. But the Yankees soon got wise to that and a more inland route was taken. The Cotton Trail, however, was very dangerous; cargos were often bushwhacked by murdering gangs of outlaws, who in turn sold them to the indifferent French. Little by little, warehouses and barns in the Shreveport area began to bulge with the surplus cotton.

“What on earth are we gonna do with all this cotton, Jacob?” Emily asked, as she inspected the barn, which was completely packed with 200-pound bales of the precious fiber. Two narrow aisles crisscrossed the barn’s center, with the bales stacked to the rafters. “How many bales got wet from the rain last night?”

“Bout nine, Miss Emily. I fixed da roof where da rain got in, but we’s gonna need us a whole new one. Nudd’r bad storm come, iss go’n leak again.” Jacob looked at the ground scratching his head.

“If ya got an idea, Jacob, I’m all ears.”

“Well, I heard Ol’Man Lawler, over on Hearn Road, got space in his barn, Miss Emily. It’s a good, big ol’barn. An’ it’s a little closer to town. But he be want’n a penny a bale a month.”

“A penny a bale a month, huh?” said Emily after a long sigh. “Think you an’ Isaac can get it all over there this weekend? We gotta make room for the next year’s crop anyway.”

“Ain’t nut’n fo’a step’a, Miss Emily,” he said with a grin. “Nut’n fo’a step’a.”

She smiled. “What would I do without ya, Jacob?”

About a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, Emily received a letter from Daniel Tucker saying a former slave would soon be arriving at her farm by way of the Etheridges’ place. The letter was brief, the man’s name not being mentioned, and Tucker advised her to destroy it once it had been read. As Emily burned the letter she wondered why a former slave would be coming to her farm from the North. Less than two weeks later, she received an identical letter from the Etheridges, and told Jacob to be on the lookout for a stranger. Two days later, Sarah was startled by a young black man who called to her from the bushes behind the barn.

Joshua Dubear was twenty-one, handsome but seldom smiled, a bit awkward and wore thick eye glasses. He told Emily he had run away from a farm way down in Houma shortly after the war began. Houma, sixty miles southwest of New Orleans, was now under Union control and Dubear planned to reunite with the family he had left over two years earlier. He had met Daniel Tucker through the black underground, occasionally working for him at the upholstery shop. When Dubear mentioned his planned return to Louisiana, Tucker offered to help, letting him know about Charles Etheridge and Emily Hawkins.

He stayed on the farm several days resting after his long journey. Once Emily saw him in the barn scribbling vigorously in a journal. Upon first meeting Dubear she had noticed something strange about the way he spoke, as if he were intentionally trying to sound less intelligent that he really was.

“Doing a little drawing, huh?” said Emily, as Dubear tried to hide the journal.

“Uh, yes ma’am,” he said. “Just a little draw’n.”

“May I see?”

“Aw, it’s nothing really.”

“I had a cousin named Herman Melville who used to draw a lot.”

Suddenly Dubear’s eyes opened wide and he stood, pointing at Emily. “You’re related to Herman Melville?”

“Yeah,” she said, laughing. “Moby Dick, too.”

Suddenly, Dubear realized he had been baited into revealing his true intellect. He looked at the ground for a second, hands on his hips, then he glanced back up at Emily.

“You fell for that one, hook, line and sinker, didn’t ya?” She stopped smiling, her face taking on a much more serious aspect. “You wanna tell me who you really are, and what you’re do’n down here?”

“Like I told ya, ma’am, I’m go’n to see my family down in Houma.”

“About a year ago,” said Emily, “they caught a spy down in Alexandria. I heard about all the terrible things they did to him before they hung him.” She paused for affect, “And he was a white man.”

“Maybe I should be on my way,” he said, starting to gather his things. “When it gets dark, I’ll be head’n out.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” said Emily. “It’s bad enough having slave hunters come around here. And unless it’s my husband, I’d rather not have Confederate soldiers snooping around asking questions. I have a friend down in Ringgold. You and Sarah and I’ll be going down there tomorrow. You’ll be the man I borrowed from Mister Dyson to do some fix’n around here. Can you remember that, Mister Dubear?”

“Mister Dyson in Ringgold,” he said, before she turned and walked out of the barn.

The trip to Ringgold and back took most of the day. Only once was Emily questioned about Dubear. Without hesitation a soldier at the bridge bought the story of the unknown black man being a hired-out slave from another master. With enough food for three days, they dropped him off at a secluded wooded area outside of Ringgold, forty miles southeast of Shreveport.

“In case you forgot, Mister Dubear,” Emily said, pointing south as he hopped off the buckboard. “Houma’s that way, and if I were you, I’d travel at night. At least until you get good ways past Alexandria. If you can make it to Lafayette, I think you’ll find the roads safe to travel into Houma. Godspeed to ya, Mister Dubear.”

“Thank ya, Ma’am,” he said, humbly nodding before trudging off into the woods.

“Dat man seem kind’a spooky, Miss Emily,” said Sarah on their way back.

“Kind’a spooky indeed, Sarah. Kind’a spooky indeed.”

Joshua Dubear would be the last black man Emily Hawkins would help traveling secretly through her farm. She would often wonder what became of him and what his true purpose was in Louisiana.

Not long after Christmas Emily began to have headaches and dizzy spells. At first she kept this from Sarah and Jacob. Every day she hoped for a letter from David, but none came. Though she tried hard to fight against it, despair and weakness began to take a toll on her body. She could not eat and tossed and turned all the night, her body aching with fever. After Sarah found her collapsed on the kitchen floor, it was thought to be a spider bite or maybe food poisoning. Only once were the slaves held in suspicion of foul play. The absurd accusation came from old Debra Kaiser, the town laudanum addict. Everyone, especially Sheriff Wilhyte, quickly dismissed it. Emily Hawkins’s uncommon kindness toward her slaves was common knowledge throughout the area. Still, there was something very unsettling about her death. She was laid to rest beside David’s mother, father and brother.

“Oh, Miss Emily,” Sarah wept, standing by her grave that night. “What po’ David go’n do wit’out ya?”

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