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The Cotto Belt (The Civil War Years – Chapters 5, 6, 7 and 8)(Chapter 4, Deleted)
(Chapter 4 deleted because of language)
The Civil War Ends
Confederate Soldiers in Alabama
It was just down three miles from where the Hightower plantation was, every man who could bear arms was still firm and ready to carry on a new battle, but General Robert E. Lee and General Grant were talking about a surrender; the Confederates were in such bad shape, that in due time General Grant would order rations for twenty-five thousand Confederates. Most of the Confederate Army was enfeebled by hunger, wasted by sickness, foot diseases, from the constant marching, it was more than a hardship it was stifling ((wholly unfit for duty) (formal surrender would come on April 9, 1865, and although the last shot would be fired, it would not come until sometime in May or June)). It now was the first week of April, 1865.
And almost immediately, Charles began talking to everyone that Frank was coming home, and Frank was expected to be coming home soon, and he was down some place in Texas, by the Rio Grande. And he was telling everybody, “It feels to me like it’s going to be a good year, the crops look good, and the war is ending and the weather is fine, and we had plenty of cotton-seed.”
He was so happy he wanted to go down to see the Ghost, the old man in the last shanty ((in the row of huts behind Josh’s)(perhaps do some fixing on his old shelter, he knew sometimes in the middle of the night when a rainstorm came up abruptly, the old man would wake up to find his bed wet, water pouring down through holes in the roof, Ella had heard him cussing a few times at the roof-and mentioned it to Charles-cussing as if it was alive with evil spirits, with evil intentions, but he never asked to stay in any other of the huts, had he, Ella had no qualms of allowing it)), the old man had worked for Charles Hightower and his father for near seventy-five years who was also from the Congo, and had not worked for the last twenty-five years, just sat in that back shed, and never complained to anybody, about anything; how he ate, and what he ate, never coming to anybodies mind, but now, today, Hightower wanted to celebrate and check on his needs, but he didn’t go down there, taking advantage of the opportunity, he considered it though, but nothing more.
Sergeant Frank Hightower
Confederate Negro Soldier
Although the war was officially over, the battles were not. Sergeant Frank Hightower propped his feet and leaned against the rotten wood of the buckboard to wait for the onset of the battle, the battle of Palmito Ranch, fought on May 12th and 13th, 1865 (it was to be the last battle of the Civil War). The battle was fought on the banks of the Rio Grande about twelve miles east of Brownsville, Texas. In the large scope of events following the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army on April 9th, Palmito Ranch was nearly ignored. This would be the last major clash of arms in the war. A skirmish had killed him, killed Sergeant Frank Hightower. While fighting had stopped for the night, and both sides went for reinforcements, Barrett came with the 62nd United States Colored Troops and 2nd Texas Cavalry; it was one of those bullets that killed Frank. From where Charles Hightower stood, he just couldn’t understand any of it. The war was over, the planting was good, the harvest would be good, and a colored soldier on the last day of all the battles to be (perhaps even from Alabama, who’s to say), out of the 620,000-soldiers that would die in the Civil War, he was the last of the numbers making it: 620,000; thus, Charles looked stirringly out his window, he couldn’t see anything-it was like he was blinded (perhaps in state of disassociating), yet in full view was a new harvest to be, Ella and Emma saw him standing there, there was nothing for him to do now but die, so he felt, Ella was moving towards him closer and closer (remaining in this state of frozen anger) as he held his chest, and dropped to his knees, and tried to catch his breath, and lost all the oxygen to his brain (it was as if a shutoff valve locked up) -becoming unconscious, and hence, never waking up. They had a double funeral that spring.
The Battle near White Ranch
At about 2:00 a.m., May 12th, 1865, the Union forces had surrounded the suspected Rebel outpost (this would be the last battle of the Civil War), known as White’s Ranch, but no one was there. Realizing this, the commander of the Union forces had his men rest and sleep among the weeds on the banks of the Rio Grande. Then at around 8:30 a.m., Mexicans on the other side of the river informed the Rebels of the Union force’s position. Consequently, this was reason enough for the Union Commander to attack the Confederate camp at Palmito Ranch, this scattered the Confederates. The Union forces were reinforced at daybreak on the 13th, with two-hundred men, and more skirmishing took place-seemingly, both sides forced into a firefight, and on the Tulosa River, Union troops met with Confederate cavalry forces, led by Col. Rip, and fighting continued. The Union forces ordered a retreat ((this was when Sergeant Frank Hightower, of the Confederate Army, was shot and killed) (118-Union forces perished in this battle, unknown account for the Confederates)), although the retreat was orderly and successful in holding the Rebels at bay.
It was said, the Imperial Mexican forces on the other side of the river, these soldiers crossed the Rio Grande into the United States, although they did not participate in the battle, they provoked it (with having shot the first shot in the ongoing battle for the two days), although the validity of this report remains in question.
Molly Benton and Ashley Walsh
Ashley Walsh, of Ozark, Alabama
Ashley was very much like her mother Granny Mae Walsh, not at all in appearance though, but in behavior; had you known them both, there was no mistaken it. Granny Mae, told Ashley, Molly Benton was kind of Josh’s girl, or at least Josh pretended she was, and Molly, a middle aged slut from Fayetteville, North Carolina, had moved into her little log cabin, some years back, after becoming a free slave over an occurrence in the Abernathy Family, she was paid to move on by and to be quiet of her affair, and with the money she had, she did just that. Pretty and a full woman, and thirty years Josh’s junior or thereabouts, he had a liking for her, and you might say, so did Silas (and a few confederate soldiers that visited her apartment in Fayetteville prior to her leaving the city, soldiers her white lover never knew about, by the name of Abernathy), whom was close to thirty and Molly, on top of forty.
She didn’t want to marry anyone, just have them run after her, or have someone on the side, lest they marry and she was afraid they’d take what little she had-although she had a lot more than what a lot of black folks had, plus papers to say she was a free woman, no longer a slave. At the moment, Josh was not interested in Molly, rather, Ashley. He did not know what happened to him, but she was too young for him of course, but not too young to understand the things she wanted in life, and how to get them, and Josh had something she wanted.
Josh was in his hut-alone, thinking on Ashley, the doors were closed, it was dark, and Silas was in the barn working, and Jordon was in town working at the store, and Emma and Ella in the house. And there seemed to creep into his body an agonizing feeling of strangulation, Josh thought, this was all something to do with his mind, not his body parts, it was a natural feeling of course, the truth was Ashley had far more sense than her mother, no one knew the man who fathered her, but it was alleged in the black queues of Ozark, and Shantytown and its surroundings, perhaps it was old Shep Hightower: he was smart and shrewd, she must had gotten his inners, Josh thought, and his spirit, inherited them. And by-and-by Ashley was becoming braver, more and more as the days went on-as this day went on, and gradually more fearless of the world around her. She had something they wanted, and she wanted something in return, and it seemed she was willing to barter for it, at any cost-even if she had to sell her soul. The thought of the gold, had gotten to her. Freedom had set in, but there was no freedom if you had to starve to death to keep it, use it. The white man still had his hold on the south, like it or not, like a bulldog to his meaty bone. The dusty black hold was still there; Josh stood up, pushed himself erect from the table and walked outside the door, slowly across the yard, looking at the several old huts, and knowing the old man was in the last one, he must had been a hundred if not more, the Ghost everyone called him.
He crept down the path, and then he saw Ashley, what was she doing there he thought?
Halfway down the path she waved at him, noiselessly he caught up to her, creeping up to her, “Hush,” she said, “the old man’s sleeping, I brought him some watermelon, nice and fresh on a day like this, you cant feel anything better.”
Josh looked at her strangely, and Ashley affirmed, “I didn’t tell you no lie about the old man, did I?” she asked. “Go ask him?” Then she whispered something, asked, “Did you hear what I said?”
“What you tell me?” said Josh.
“When you all dressed up on Sunday’s and shave, I look at you and say: you sho’ Josh is a good looking man. You the best looking man I ever see.”
“You think so, Ashley?”
“You sho’ is. I reckon the reason why maybe I think so is you most usually looks so wise.”
“What does you mama say?” asked Josh.
“She ain’t say nothing, but she look like somebody give her a spell of your mind.”
Josh spit some wet tobacco out of his mouth, to his left side, wiped his mouth and chin, with his sleeve. His eyes were big as owls, and she grabbed his hand, “Didn’t I tell you…” and she hushed up, and they went into the high grass and lay back, and he, Josh grew with enthusiasm, and she asked, “Now will you tell me where the gold is?”
Heretofore, they were in the undergrowth, hidden from the house and the open fields, part of the broom-sedge that had not been cut for farming, and his conscience began to bother him, but it didn’t seem to bother her none, and he figured let it bother him temporarily, he could live with it and ask for forgiveness later on, he was hungry for the little tempest, even if it all sickened his soul, his body was roaring to go-and somehow the devil had wiggled his way in, and Josh simply paid him no attention.
Sometimes he and Molly could do this in a few minutes, and at other times it took hours if not days, and he was just hoping it wasn’t days this evening, before he was satisfied, and he had to do what he was going to do, that she wanted him to do, before God punished him, otherwise not do it at all, and have to think about it all next week. And she knew if she didn’t cooperate, the gold would vanish, if it hadn’t already, but knowing Mr. Charles Hightower had died already (and quite suddenly), chances were it was still available for the pickings.
There was now a dead silence, a hollow silence in the high grass, as he lay back he could see the roof of the mansion, and the side porch of his shanty. “Hey!” she said, “you’re not as rusty as I thought!” Then he jumped up and left her standing there, putting on her slipover clothing. Silas saw him from the barn for a moment, and saw Ashley walking the other way to the Smiley plantation. Silas stopped working in the barn and waited for Josh to reach him. With outstretched hands they greeted one another, there were no hard feelings.
The Smiley Plantation, Ozark, Alabama
“I don’t know son, what made me do what I did, but I did it,” said Josh.
“You is only one man, pa” said Silas, “the old snake had his time with me and you both,” and they laughed.
“The Good Lord, he’s against such things,” Josh said. “I gotta be looking out for myself for in the after-life thing, now I gotta get right with the Lord and confess my sins. I done wrong, and Jesus don’t take much notice to sinners that keep doing the same sin, over and over, like I do with Molly and you know who else now.”
“Hell,” Silas said, “you say that every time you come back from Goose Creek after visiting Molly, but you don’t never stop going over to Molly’s, you just keep asking for the Lord to forgive you.”
“I reckon you is right son, let’s go get some moonshine so I can lay back and think about this some.”
“You smell like you already had a good share of moonshine, pa?”
They started both walking alongside the barn to the shanty, Silas thrust his hand over his paw’s shoulder, although he had to lift it a foot or so up to do it, “I guess women folk get hungry, too,” he said.
Josh sat down in his rocking chair on the porch, clinging to the frame with both hands, he sat swaying back and forth, rocking, and rocking, and humming an old church hymn.
The Fire and Gold
Old Josh sitting in his Shanty
“You clean forgot to see Molly, it seems like,” Silas told Josh the following morning. “She’s been asking for yaw pa.” Josh jumped up from his chair at the table, and hurried on over to the doorway where Silas was standing, and said, “You’ve been talking to Molly…” then clutched Silas’ hand pulling him into the shack, near dragging him.
“Pa you shouldn’t be doing that,” Silas said.
Josh looked him in the face, he pleaded convincingly enough for Silas not to tell Molly what he had done, lest she up and leave him, if he should.
“I ain’t said nothin’, and don’t intend to pa, don’t fret over it,” twisting his arm loose, trying to get it away from Josh’s grip.
“I’ve been praying over this matter with the Lord about Ashley,” Josh commented. Silas chuckled a bit.
“There ain’t’ nothing about prayer to laugh about,” said Josh, seriously, “we all got to pray sometime, even you Silas.”
“I reckon so pa, but you did the wrong, not me.” Silas said. Josh put his arms around Silas’ shoulder, “Maybe we both should pray son?”
“Hell, I gotta work pa, ain’t got no time for prayer now, and gotta do your job as well as mine.”
“I know you’d want me to pray for ya, so I’ll pray for both of us,” said Josh.
The Old Man called Ghost
Josh didn’t go down to see Molly; he was tired, and wanted to rest. Neither did he go down to Goose Creek to do some fishing, or to the fields to see his boy Silas. And in the meantime, Ashley had some well developed plans being worked out in her mind: matter-of-fact, they were already worked out, only to be implemented. And that now was in the makings.
It had been for her, one thought led to the next, and the more she thought about what she had to do the easier it became to do it, and waiting for the right time was not on her schedule, to-day was just as good as to-morrow for her, and Mr. Hightower was dead, and Ella and Emma were visiting at the Smiley’s (but even at best it was a good while until daylight when she had intentions to leave, or perhaps even this evening if all things work out according to her plan, she was in some kind of night dress and she with a sort of weary remorseless patience, just about worn out herself from thinking and planning and digging inside her nerves then turning the go-ahead button on, and she was jumping ahead of what at one time seemed hopeless, she had really never hoped for, not really and truly, but now seemingly attainable, and available, so why not try and reach it, and this is what she was thinking, and now doing, even if it involved a little brutality). I guess you could say things were going along in an easy way, perhaps too easy, but easy nonetheless, and to Ashley, all the better for it. To her little lifetime, it was now.
Josh had fallen to sleep on the cot by the window-he done prayed so hard so long, and drank so much whiskey, he fell sound to sleep-likened to a hibernating bear; Ashley had crept, tiptoed into his shanty, his room to see ((it was as if she knew he’d fall into a deep sleep, perhaps she had put something in that jug of his, who’s to say, but she could have recalled the story Josh had told her earlier on, what had taken place in New Orleans, when Josh got sick and yellowish, after he woke up, and found all his money gone, and perhaps the Ghost had a formula for just that kind of sleeping)(rumor had said, back in the early days, when the Ghost was more youthful, he’d be back in the thicket-the dense stand of trees and tall shrubs behind his hut making voodoo like recipes for magic spells, and potions, etc.)) And then she went down the path that led to the Ghost’s shack. The old man, in the shack had gotten ready, having a work to act upon.
In the course of the following hour, Ashley had reached the bedroom of Mr. Charles T. Hightower, pulled back the rug, pulled up the board that hid the gold coins, her sole intention of having all of them but one, her mother in the kitchen, unaware of what was going on-had she known, she might have stopped her, or joined her to go with her daughter to New Orleans, and in either case, Ashley wanted no part of that. And after counting the thirty or more twenty-dollar gold pieces, she wrapped them in a pillow sheet, and returned to the old man’s cabin, the undertaking accomplished, dropped a twenty-dollar gold piece on his table, her thinking was now different, and forever would be: she said no goodbyes to anybody, she just up and left-just like that, prepared to find her way to New Orleans-come hell or high-water, she was a free woman, as was ever black man and black woman in America now. And she’d not have to remain hidden, because no one knew it was her, and by the time Mrs. Hightower found out the gold was gone, who’s to say when that would be. And who’s to say she knew it was there in the first place? It didn’t matter one way or the other. To her, it wasn’t any sin to take from people that enslaved you and your mother all their lives and made them work for nothing. She came into the world a slave, and that wasn’t the way she was leaving. She called it retribution, with a tribute.
Josh Jefferson’s Shanty
Josh was still sleeping, and it still was not too late to do what had to be done, Josh was the only one that could point a finger at Ashley, or the Ghost, should the law ask, but no one would believe the old Ghost anyhow plus he was part of the scheme, and he hardly could walk to do what he needed to do, so it would seem to the law-if it came to an investigation, it wasn’t him. But he still could hobble forward to the back of the house, take some dry cotton from last years crop (that was left by Ashley for him in back of Josh’s shanty) along with some dry blackjack oak -found in the dense undergrowth, nearby, beyond the last of the cabins, and with a lit lantern, he lit it on fire, in hopes that it would burn fast enough to collapse the house onto Josh-while he was sleeping, in that momentary hibernation-and kill him.
It seemed like God sent someone to make sure the harvest went well, but no one to watch that old man, called Ghost. It was late afternoon, the sun was warm, and the air was pleasant. And there was a light breeze, and the old man lit the cotton with his oil lamp and hobbled back to his shanty, and took his gold piece off the table and hid it under a floorboard. The breeze was blowing onto the back of the house, blowing the cotton that was on fire and now the blackjack against the house, and it seemed the devil had cultivated this perfectly; the old wood went ablaze quickly. The fiery, yellow, red and blue flames, went sky high in a matter of minutes, and it was warm and the fire crackled and popped, and sparks from the wood on fire went everywhichway-like lightening bugs, the side of the wall burned upward in a matter of seconds; burning like a crawling snake onto the roof caving it in, and onto Josh below, spinning a heap of wood everywhichway.
The Smiley’s saw the fire (as did the visiting Ella and Emma) and so did Silas, the old Ghost didn’t come out of his hut; he just sat back on his chair–that was over the floorboard where the coin was hidden, and there he sat, as if someone had turned off a switch, to an engine.
It was not to be realized how fast a fire could spread, with the perfect conditions-it wouldn’t take long before the hut burned down to the ground no different than a pile of dry autumn leaves, with Josh in it, looking like a burnt heap, crooked like a fetus. Ashes all about, Even Molly came running from two miles away and by the time she got to the Hightower plantation, it was all over, not much more to be said, and no one noticed the Ghost was gone or Ashley. I reckon no one cared. Molly cried on Silas’ shoulder. The only thing left to be seen of the old shanty was the beat-up old brick chimney standing parched-dry to the bone of life, twilight being the only thing that outlined its horn like appearance.
After Silas buried his pa that evening, he went to Molly’s house to comfort her, and he’d end up living there. And Jordon never did return back to the Hightower plantation after he gave the elegy for his pa, he stayed in Ozark working at the store living in the back and sleeping on the cot-the very same one he had for years, and the boll-weevils and weeds and Cotton wilt (a fungus plague) destroyed the cotton harvest, and Ella and Emma were left at their mansion alone, as two spinsters. And thus, started the reconstruction era of the south; as for Ashley, she made it to New Orleans and Granny Mae never heard from her again, although rumor said she was doing well, was in partnership with someone in a brothel.
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