Saturday, February 15, 2014

For All Nails #317: The Specials

For All Nails #317: The Specials
By Johnny Pez

Nacogdoches, Jefferson, USM
7 October 1908

When Junie woke up in the middle of the night to find her father and mother fully dressed, she didn’t have to wonder what was happening. She knew that the Specials had come for them.

“Get dressed, Junie,” her mother told her. “We’re leaving.”

Without another word, Junie began to get dressed, while her parents woke Jemmie and Lily and set them to dressing as well. In spite of the darkness, they all acted quickly, and in five minutes, the whole family was dressed, and preparing to leave.

While her body was putting on her ragged clothes, Junie’s mind kept going over the secret words that every slave in Mexico knew: “The first snake goes down into the valley, and the second snake goes up into the mountains.” After she finished dressing, she let her finger trace out the signs that she knew went with the secret words: SVSM.

Her mother and father led the three children out of the shack, and into the moonless night. The light of the stars let her make out two more figures in the darkness: two men, dressed as they were in the rags of slaves. Junie knew, though, that the two men weren’t slaves. They were the Specials, and they were here to lead them across the river Jordan to freedom.

The Specials didn’t speak; they simply gestured for the slaves to follow them, and the slaves did. The Specials led Junie and the others through the plantation’s recently-harvested cotton fields, until they came to a dirt road. Stepping out onto the road felt to Junie like stepping out of her old life, and into a new one. Up until then, the slaves hadn’t been doing anything wrong. They could go where they liked around the plantation, but going out onto the road without permission from Master Henry or the overseer was forbidden.

The Specials led them down the dirt road in the starry night, farther and farther away from the plantation. To left and right, there were the same fields of cotton, looking strangely naked with the puffs of cotton gone. After they had been traveling for a time, Junie heard the sound of a wagon approaching from behind them. The Specials heard it too, and led them all into a cotton field on their right.

The wagon was just passing by, and Junie thought her heart would freeze when she saw one of the Specials stand up and let out a sharp whistle.

The wagon came to a halt. The driver, a white man, looked over at the Special and said, “That you, Cliff?”

“It ain’t President Flores,” the Special answered.

The driver let out a laugh and said, “All right, hop on up.” The Specials led the slaves out of the field and to the back of the wagon. There were half a dozen bales of cotton there, but the driver did something to one, and Junie saw that it wasn’t a real bale of cotton, just an empty barrel made up to look like one. The white man said, “Don’t worry, plenty of room for everyone.”

The Specials helped the slaves up onto the wagon, and into the false cotton bales. Junie was relieved to find that there was a bag filled with straw to lie down on inside the bale. While she lay there waiting for the rest of her family to hide themselves, one of the Specials said to the white man, “Took you long enough to find us.”

Junie held her breath while she waited for the white man to scold the Special for sassing him. Instead, the white man just laughed again and said, “All these goddamn back roads look alike. Don’t these people know about signs?”

“Signs cost money,” the Special answered. “You know what these people are like when it comes to spending money they don’t have to.”

“Don’t I just,” said the white man. The conversation left Junie completely adrift. Who was the driver, and why didn’t he act like any white man she had ever met?

Junie was in one of the false bales along with Jemmie and Lily, while her mother and father were together in the other one. In spite of the jolting of the wagon, her brother and sister were soon fast asleep, but it seemed to Junie that she was awake for hours and hours in the dark. She must have fallen asleep, though, because she was suddenly awakened by a light.

She sat up, startled, to find that the false bale had been opened up again, and daylight was pouring into it. The two Specials and the white man were standing there, and Junie was finally able to get a good look at the three of them. One of the Specials was a man of middle years, while the other looked to be little older than Junie herself. The white man looked like every other white man Junie had ever seen, and she felt a wave of fear shake her as he stood there. But the older Special was saying, “It’s all right, children. We’ve stopped for the day. You can all come out, it’s safe.”

Junie crawled out of the false bale, and the younger Special helped her down to the ground. They seemed to be in an old barn that was half falling down. There were three other people in the barn, all of them white, who were looking after the horses. They ignored the slaves emerging from the back of the wagon. When they were all out, the white man left to join the others with the horses.

“Where are we?” asked her father.

“Safe house,” said the older Special. “We need to give the horses a chance to rest. And us too, of course. Come with me.”

The two Specials led her family out of the barn, and across a yard to an old plantation house that was almost as broken-down as the barn. Inside, though, there was food and water, and a solid table surrounded by chairs. “Have a seat,” the older Special invited them. The fleeing slaves sat, and the Specials joined them at the table. The food was simple jerked beef, with some raw vegetables and two loaves of bread.

Junie’s family talked among themselves, but seemed reluctant to speak to the Specials, who ate along with them in silence. But the younger Special was sitting next to Junie, and she was bursting with questions, so she finally worked up the courage to speak to him. “Sir?” she asked.

“Call me Park,” the Special answered.

“Park,” Junie said, feeling strange as she did so. “Who’s that white man?”

“That’s Luke,” said Park. “He’s one of us.”

“A Special?” said Junie, astonished.

“That’s right.”

It had never occurred to Junie that there might be white men among the Specials. It gave her a vague sense of disappointment. “I never would have guessed it,” she finally said.

“Mighty useful having a white man along,” the older Special added. “Saves us a lot of trouble.”

Junie supposed it would. A white man driving a wagon would provoke no suspicion from passers-by, where a black man could expect to be stopped on general principles.

“Park,” she spoke again. “How many times you been across the river?”

“This is my first,” said Park.

Again, Junie was taken aback. She supposed, when you thought about it, that every Special had to have a first time going across the river to bring back escaped slaves, but it still struck her as odd.

“You afraid?” she asked him.

“Damn right I am,” the Special said. “But don’t you be. My Pa here’s an old hand at this. He’ll see us through.”

“That’s your Pa?” This seemed to be Junie’s day for being astonished.

“Sure. Makes sense, when you think about it. If we want folks to believe I’m his son, it sure helps that I really am his son.”

Junie’s mind was awhirl. This business of escaping across the river Jordan to freedom suddenly seemed a whole lot more complicated that she had been expecting.

“Your name is Cliff?” she asked Park’s father. She remembered that the white man had called him that.

“That’s right,” he said. “You’re Junie?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How old are you, Junie?”

“Fifteen, sir. Uh, Cliff.”

Cliff smiled at the slip, and Junie felt herself warming at the sight. “Cliff, how long before we reach the river Jordan?”

“Well, it’s properly called the Arkansas, but plenty of folks I know call it the Jordan. Depending on the roads, we ought to be there in ten days, give or take a couple.”

Ten days! It seemed like an eternity to Junie. Ten days on the road through Jefferson, the whole time under constant risk of discovery. “I wish we could just fly there!” she suddenly exclaimed.

“Maybe we could,” said Park with a chuckle. “Go down to Jefferson City and steal an airmobile. Assuming they have any airmobiles at Jefferson City.”

It took Junie a moment to place the word. Airmobiles were flying machines that the Tories had invented. She had been inclined to skepticism when she first heard about them, but her father had assured her that they were real.

“Park,” she said, “if the Tories can build airmobiles, and locomobiles, and all that, why can’t they march down to Mexico, and free all the slaves?”

Park shook his head. “Folks in the C.N.A. don’t like the idea of going to war, most of them. Man named Thomas Kronmiller wanted to do just that, and tried to make himself governor-general, but not enough folks went along with him. Instead we got men like Mr. Hemingway and Mr. Merriman who think we ought to leave well enough alone.” It was clear from the tone of his voice what Park thought of Mr. Hemingway and Mr. Merriman.

Cliff spoke up then. “Who do you think is paying for all this, Park?”

Junie was just as puzzled by the question as Park seemed to be when he answered, “Paying for what?

“For you, and me, and Luke, for starters,” said Cliff, “and all the rest of us here in Mexico. Paying for this house, and the wagon, and the guards we keep sweet so they let us go by. Paying to keep our farm in Dickinson County running while we’re busy down here.”

“Well, we do, I guess,” Park finally said. “The Ess Vees.”

Cliff shook his head. “This all costs much more than the Ess Vee could afford. We’ve got the whole country helping out, and that’s a fact. And it’s men like Mr. Hemingway and Mr. Merriman who keep the money coming, and Mr. Gallivan and Mr. McDowell before them.”

“Well, if it’s so expensive,” Park countered, “then why not just go to war and have it done with once and for all?”

Cliff shook his head again. “A war may sound mighty fine, if you’re just talking about it. But it’s a fact that when a war comes, nothing goes the way you think it will. Mr. Gilpin found that out the hard way, and a lot of good men paid dearly to help him learn, your great-uncle Billy included.

“What we’re doing here may not be as exciting as fighting a war, but it’s a better, quieter way to bring freedom to our people here. The Mexicans are content to turn a blind eye to what we do, and the reason they are is that they know they don’t have to worry about Mr. Hemingway or Mr. Merriman sending an army across the border.”

Cliff was silent after that, and Park and Junie were too. He had given her a lot to think about, especially the idea that the Mexicans were letting the Specials steal their slaves away.

After the meal, Cliff and Park led the slaves to another room with several beds in it, then left on some business of their own. Her parents took one, and her brother and sister took another, leaving Junie to sleep alone in hers. It was the first time in her life that she had ever been in a real bed.

Junie woke with a start several times, wondering where she was, before remembering that she was in the old plantation house. The last time she woke, it was dark in the room; she and her family had slept the day away. She lay awake after that, staring into the darkness, until she heard a sound of footsteps and a light approaching. She sat up in the bed, stricken with fear, until she saw that it was Cliff and Park carrying a lantern. “Are we leaving now?” she asked them.

Cliff nodded, and went over to wake up her parents, while Park did the same with Jemmie and Lily. They had another meal at the table before going out to the barn. As the others returned to their hiding places in the false bales, Junie asked Cliff, “Can I ride up top with you and Park?”

Cliff looked over at Luke, who shrugged. “Fine with me,” he said. And just like that, Junie found herself seated next to Park as Luke and Cliff led the horses out of the barn and down a weed-choked drive that led to the road. The two older men joined them on the seat, and with Cliff taking the reins, they resumed their journey north to the river Jordan.

Although she sometimes spoke with Cliff, and once or twice with Luke, Junie spent most of her time talking to Park. He told her about life in the Ess Vee, which for most people meant farming. When she asked him if there were many white people there, Park said that about a third of the people were white. For the most part, whites and Negroes lived apart from each other, though this was becoming less true in the major cities of Fort Lodge and Saint Louis.

“It’s also not true in the Militia, including the Special Militia,” Park said. “We couldn’t do our work if it was. Some of us think that the whole confederation would work better if we didn’t keep ourselves apart.”

Junie thought it sounded more sensible to keep things the way they were. Even knowing that Luke was a Special himself, she found it hard to be in his presence. She could imagine nothing better than living in a whole town with only other Negroes around.

One by one, the days went past, each spent at a different safe house. From time to time, Junie would ride with the Specials; other times, her mother or father or siblings would. One night, she saw a river glinting in the moonlight, and thought that their journey was over. But to her disappointment, it wasn’t the Jordan they were approaching, it was another called the Rio Colorado. They passed through a town called HermiĆ³n, then crossed a bridge over the Rio Colorado. There were two white men in the gray uniforms of the Mexican Army manning a toll gate. Junie was terrified, but Luke casually tossed a coin to one of the soldiers, and the other raised the gate. Junie remained frozen in her seat until they had trundled over the bridge and were rolling along the road on the far side.

It was raining when they set out from the last safe house south of the river Jordan, but Junie still wanted to spend the trip up on the seat with the Specials. Cliff had refused, though, saying that this close to the border all the runaway slaves would have to remain concealed in the false bales.

Lying in the false bale beside Jemmie and Lily, it seemed to Junie that they had been there for an eternity. She was too keyed up to sleep, and every minute she was certain that they would be discovered by soldiers from the army, or worse, from the Jefferson Brigades. With the army, Park had told her, you could often bribe your way out of trouble. But the Brigades were different. They were run by the Kramer Company, which Park said was bigger and richer than the government itself, and mean as a snake besides. If the Brigades caught you, they’d shoot you down on the spot, no exceptions.

When, finally, the wagon creaked to a halt, Junie felt herself go dizzy with fear. Was it the army, or the Brigades? She heard the wagon’s gate go down, and felt a rush of cold air as the false bale was opened up.

Cliff’s voice came out of the darkness. “Children, get up. We’re here!”

Within moments, Junie and her siblings had scrambled out of the wagon, and their parents soon joined them. It was still raining, and the weather had turned cold, but Junie didn’t care. She looked around, but in the darkness it was hard to make anything out. Cliff said, “Join hands and follow me,” and the runaway slaves did.

Cliff led them away from the wagon, which rolled away behind them with Luke at the reins. Junie could tell that they were in among trees, and Cliff led them carefully between them. Finally, after maybe fifteen minutes, they emerged from the trees, and Junie could hear the sound of water rolling past. They were here! They were here on the banks of the river Jordan!

“You all right?” a whispered voice asked. She could tell without looking that it was Park.

“I’m fine, Park. What happens now?”

There was the flare of a lucifer, and Junie could see Cliff lighting the wick of a lantern. Park explained, “There should be a boat on the other bank, waiting for our signal. Once they get it, they’ll row over and pick us up.” Cliff held the lantern up with the lamp covered, then uncovered it three times, paused, then three times more. Through the rain, Junie could see a distant light blink twice.

“Did you see it?” Park asked.

Junie nodded, then realized he wouldn’t be able to see her in the dark and added, “Yes. That was them?”

“It was,” Park confirmed.

And it was. Ten minutes later, a boat with six men rowing it had come up out of the darkness. Two of them, Junie couldn’t help noticing, were white. One of the men in it threw a rope, which Park caught. Junie and her parents joined him in drawing the boat to the south bank of the river Jordan. One of the rowers got out, and between them Park, Cliff, and he were able to help the slaves on board.

Junie could feel a pool of water at the bottom of the boat as she hunkered down, and she worried for a moment that it was sinking. The rowers seemed unconcerned, though, so she tried to put the thought out of her mind. One of the men was calling out time as the rowers maneuvered the boat across the river Jordan.

Looking ahead of them, Junie saw that a lantern was casting a steady light over a spot on the north bank, and the boat was making for it. As they came closer, she could make out the man who was holding it. He was wearing a black uniform with silver trim, and Junie thought her heart was going to leap from her chest when she saw the SVSM marks on his shoulder boards.

More men emerged into the lantern’s light, also in uniform. One of the rowers cast the rope out, and the uniformed Specials caught it and pulled the boat to the bank. One by one, members of Junie’s family were helped out of the boat, and onto the north bank of the river Jordan, onto the Promised Land.

Cliff and Park were the last to reach the bank, and as the rowers pulled the boat up onto the riverbank, Cliff walked up to the man with the lantern, saluted, and said, “Serjeant Clifford Monaghan, Southern Vandalia Special Militia.” There was something odd about the way he talked. Back in Jefferson, he had sounded like every other Negro Junie knew. Now his words were somehow more precise, more formal. More educated, Junie realized.

Park did the same, in the same precise manner of speech, saying, “Constable Parker Monaghan.” Then he added, “All present, sir. No losses.”

The man handed the lantern to one of the other uniformed Specials and returned their salute. “Captain George Carpenter,” he answered, also in the same style speech. “Well done, Serjeant, Constable.” Then he turned to her father and said, “Welcome to Southern Vandalia, Mister … “

“Carter,” her father answered. “Jack Carter. My wife Sara, and my children Junie, Jemmie, and Lily.”

It was the first time Junie had ever heard her father give his full name to anyone but another slave. And then it struck her like a wave: they weren’t slaves any more. They were free. She felt hot tears running down her face among the cold drops of rain.

“Mister Carter,” Captain Carpenter finished. “If you and your family would come this way, we can get you properly settled in.”

Junie reached out to take Park’s hand in hers, and together they followed Captain Carpenter through the night, into the Promised Land.


No comments: