Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Suffrage (Excerpt)

“When I die, bury me in Tangipahoa Parish, so I still can vote.” -- Huey P. Long

I made my way along Buttermilk Creek at dawn, checking my traps when I heard cussing, somebody spitting words out like hammering a nail. I settled down in the brush, then snuck up the hill to our family plot, quiet pine straw under my toes. Their horses and tents was at sides of the flat hill. I counted eleven dirty white shirts and blue caps, and then I saw one more, head to toe in Yankee blue.

A scrawny one cawed, “Hey Sergeant, Eli Fox was born in 1824 and died in 1864. Change the two to an eight he was born in 1884, twenty years after he died!”

“That’s ten years from now,” growled the big Yankee in blue. “Doesn’t make good sense.”

“That’s why it’s funny!”

Sarge stood on Daddy’s grave. “I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun.”

Lightning crackled in my head. If I’d had our shotgun I would have blown their heads off. I waited until I caught my breath, and crept back down. My brother, Ernest, would know what to do.

When I jumped the gully, I ran right into a blue coat. “Ho, there, lad,” he said wrapping his arms around me, making me drop my sack with the two dead coons. He took me down hard.

“Easy, lad. Let’s chat, shall we?”

“Turn me loose, damned Yankee.” I almost sobbed, short of breath with him on top.

“We’re looking for the White League. I know a fine lad like you wouldn’t have nothing to do with murders, but maybe you know who would. Tell me and I’ll go about my business.” Irishboy Elliott’s whole family talked like this Yankee--I didn’t know there was Irish Yankees.

“Let me go!” I shot halfway out and grabbed a handful of red hair. He hit me so hard that my head rattled.

Yankees thundered down the hill, yelling. They drug me back up and tied my hands and feet, so that I was hugging daddy’s tombstone. It was a sandstone slab from Buttermilk Creek with nooks and crannies for their rope to seat down in, except for the face that Ernest had flattened out, where my chest and neck fit.

Sarge squatted on the other side of the stone and glared until I quit cussing. “What’s your name, boy?”

I clamped my jaw shut. I was madder than I had ever been.

“Not ready to talk? Well, I can cure that. Get my whip, Monihan,” he ordered the Irish Yankee.

Monihan puffed his cheeks out, stood there a second, and drug off. Sarge stared at me from under his Yankee hat and bushy eyebrows. “You know any White League around Muddville?”

I just stared.

“Traitors buried here, boy. You wouldn’t be one of them?”

Through my teeth, I said, “My Daddy wasn’t no traitor.”

He spit on Uncle Van’s grave. “Your Pa took arms against his country. And before you say Louisiana left that country, I’ll tell you that the Union voted--majority rule--for Louisiana not to leave, so they broke the law. Your Pa’s a traitor.”

Monihan brought a black bullwhip. These Yankees wasn’t herding cows so I knew Sarge liked to beat people. Ernest would never hear me scream way out here. I yanked up on the rope and felt my feet move, too--trussed. Salty sweat ran into my eyes and mouth, but I couldn’t wipe. Monihan handed Sarge the whip. I blurted out, “You never voted to whip me, you cowards.”

Sarge blinked. He smiled. “Nope, I never did. All right, let’s vote it.”

“I vote no, so it’s a tie. Let me go.”

He grinned. “We got thirteen here. You’ll have to submit to what General Blount calls the tyranny of the majority.”

Could I keep him talking until somebody could save me? “You Yankees got boys of your own. Why do you want to bullwhip me when I ain’t done nothing?” Tears leaked out of my eyes; my body was stinging on the sandstone.

Sarge said, “All in favor of me whipping this boy?”

Lots of “yes sir” from them.

“Against?” he said.

I said, “No!”

Monihan said, “No sir.”

Sarge looked like Monihan hit him. “What the hell?”

Monihan said, “Since we’re voting it, I allow that if we whip him we’ll make more enemies than we want. Free him and we’ll get just what we want, Sir.”

“Hrmph. Well, you lose. Since you like this traitor, you get to beat him.” He handed the whip to Monihan. I relaxed a little since Monihan didn’t want me beat anyway. Then Sarge said, “Three lashes. If some aren’t good enough, you’ll get those, plus one.”

Daddy whipped me some before he died at Mansfield when I was eight. Mama didn’t have the stomach for whipping me after Daddy died--she got pneumonia a year later. Ernest whipped me once, but he ended up crying halfway through. He had the gumption to take their place in most things, but not that.

I stared hate at Sarge and ran my fingertips over Daddy’s stone.

The whip whistled through the air and lashed me. Every muscle bent backward and I screamed like a girl. My muscles didn’t let go. I ran out of air, caught more, and screamed it out, too.

While my back still blazed, another lash burned across it. I couldn’t breathe. My muscles was so tight I was paralyzed.

Sarge said, “Wait. He needs to feel them all.”

When I caught my breath I pled, “Oh, please, damned Yankees, oh please don’t ...”

I begged until I whimpered and twitched like a dying squirrel. Sarge raised my chin with his hand. “Two hundred black men murdered in Colfax last week. Where is the White League in Grant Parish?”

I blurted the truth. “I don’t know, Ernest says we ain’t got time for such, we got to make a living, we ain’t no better off than black folks, we sell them chickens at their boarding house, we swim with them, we call them names but they calls us names too, I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

“Shut up!” He growled. “I don’t think the boy knows nothing. Still, we voted three lashes. Monihan.”

I sobbed, “No, oh please, no.”

Monihan leaned and touched me on the shoulder with the tip of the bullwhip. “That’s three, Sarge.”

“You Irish bastard! On your knees!” Two of them stripped Monihan’s jacket and shirt and shoved him down on the other side of Daddy’s stone, facing me. He put his hands on my shoulders and nodded.

Sarge’s first lash bent Monihan backwards and he fell over, trying to reach behind, screaming not nearly as loud as me. Four Yankees held his arms around the stone while Sarge lashed again. He screamed and cried, and in a while he was moaning and they let him up.

Sarge said, “Sorry you did that, Monihan?”

Between gasps, Monihan said, “Aye, Sarge.”


When I staggered home with my coons, Ernest was plowing behind the mule. I still had the shakes and whimpered when I took a wrong step. I could never sneak up on Ernest because he was always looking over his shoulder. Sitting on the porch one time, I asked, “What are you looking back at?”

He squinted at me and said, “Mansfield.”

“Why are you scared? You won at Mansfield.”

“Maybe somebody won at Mansfield. I sure didn’t, and neither did Daddy. And you didn’t win neither.”

When Ernest looked back he could see I was bowed up. “Jake?”

“Yankees, Ernest. At the graveyard.”

“What did they do?”

I’d start crying if I told him, so I just turned my back.

“Lord! Why, Jake?”

“The League killed hundreds of black folks at Colfax last week. Yankees thought I knew something.”

Ernest hugged my forehead to his sweaty shoulder, like when we prayed every night. “I’m sorry.”

“Ain’t your fault.”

He pulled back, looking me over. “Skint up ... all over.”

“They tied me to Daddy’s gravestone. One named Monihan took two lashes to save me from getting another. Don’t hurt him.”

Ernest swallowed hard. I had known we couldn’t fight Yankees, but I forgot somehow, because Ernest always set everything right for me. He was Daddy, Mama, and big brother, too.

“Let’s go see Irishboy,” he said.

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