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The Fighting Slave 1
I'M seventy-four years old now. I ain't young no mo', but thar's nothin' the matter with me except I've got the heat and hit makes me scratch, I don't know how I come to be alive when so many others have died. Hit mus' be God is savin' me for some good purpose.
I've lived right hyar on Fort Hill on the edge of Vicksburg ever since war-time, and that's long enough. Hit's longer 'n a man ought to stay in one place.
I was raised in Kaintucky, and was thar until five years befo' the war. Then a man bought me who had a place near Vicksburg. I was sixteen years old and a good worker, but thar was one thing I wouldn’t stand — that was beatin' up. If any man was tryin' to jump on me I'd fight. I don't do so no mo'. I've got kind o' ca'm since the war, but I was a devil when I was growin' up. Oh, Lord! I was a finished-out little rascal then. I'd fight tryin' to git away from Dad when he was punishin' me. If a boy bigger'n me was to whop me he'd better look out. I'd git a rock and slip aroun' and cut his head to the fat.. Yes, I was up to all such didoes as that. I'd fight white and black.
Generally an overseer would have the slaves so cowered that when he snapped his whip they'd go right down on their knees ready for a whippin'. But I wouldn't. I was a fighter, and besides I was from Kaintucky, yo' see, whar they treated yo' like yo' was people. But hyar, if yo' was out in the cotton patch ploughin' or doin' somethin' else, and didn’t work to suit 'em, they'd whip you and cut your back all to pieces. Hit would take five or six men to put me down. I didn’t believe in so many pitching onto one. If thar was goin' to be any whippin' they ought to have had two men stan' up and fight man to man and let the best man beat. But a whole parcel of 'em would pile onto me and git me down and tie me to stakes, and I'd cuss 'em and tell 'em that I'd kill 'em when I got up.
If I could git hold of an axe befo' they pounced on me I'd go to chop 'em up like I was choppin' up wood, and then they were 'fraid to come at me. After that perhaps I'd run out in the woods to stay. They'd think that I'd be starvin' and that I would soon come back, but I'd git all I wanted to eat. Plenty of hogs was feedin' in the woods, and I wouldn’t let a hog pass me if I was hungry. I'd use a club on him. They were not wild at all because they were used to havin' some one feed 'em once in a while. I could take a year of corn and go in my master's lot and call every hog thar.
When I was ready to fry a piece of pork I'd steal somebody's skillet, and I didn’t care whether I stole it from white or black, so I got it. Nobody didn't hide anything them days, and I could always git a skillet without much trouble. Perhaps I couldn’t very well carry it along with me, and I'd leave it. Then I'd steal another when I needed one, or it might be I'd go and speak to some colored man at his cabin and say, "Partner, let me have a skillet so I can cook something to eat."
"All right," he'd say, "I've got two or three, and I'll bring you one."
I'd make a fire way down in the swamp in the cane thicket and brile or boil my meat, and the next day I'd be way off somewhar else among the bears and painters. Oh, yes! thar was wild animals in the woods, but they never bothered me; and if they had thar 'd been a fight just as sure as God made Moses. I wa'n't scared of nothin'.
THE RUNAWAY BROILS SOME MEAT
Often I'd watch whar some black folks was workin' in the field, and I'd wait till the cart come with their dinner. As soon as the white man who brought the dinner was out of the way I'd step over whar the hands were and git something to eat. But I had to be careful about meetin' folks. If I was talkin' with anybody in a field, and hit look like my talk didn’t suit him I'd git away.
Once in a while I'd go to a mill and git meal, and then I'd make ash cake as nice as ever yo' e't. If I could git cabbage leaves I'd wrap the ash cake up in 'em befo' I put it in the hot ashes. The cabbage leaves gave it a good scent, and a good taste. Any one who's eaten ash cake baked like that wouldn’t want it no other way; and if I was startin' gittin' such an ash cake ready yo 'd holler, "Quick! I want some in a hurry."
I used to carry along a little saw and a tin bucket and a spoon. Sometimes I wouldn’t have the spoon, and I'd use a stick instead.
If it rained I'd crawl into a holler log. I'd stay in thar all night, and all day, too, if I didn’t want to walk. It was a good place to keep any one from seein' me. Snakes and things would be slippin' along by me to git up farther, but thar was room for them and me, too. Yo'd git a wild scent after yo'd stayed in the woods a while, and if yo' didn’t bother the animals they'd never bother you. — I know that. Co'se, if I'd done got scared and made a rustle they'd 'a' bit me. But yo' got to git entangled with 'em—that's all the way yo' can git 'em to bother you.
In nice weather I'd hide in a thicket, and I'd hear the birds sing and holler, "Skip-a-ree!"
If people come hunting me I knowed I could see as far as they could, and I was able to dodge 'em anywhar. But one time they dodged me and hid and let me come right up to 'em.
I was goin' along a road that day and hit took me right thoo a man's field. He was ploughin' his corn, which was knee-high. Two or three colored boys and men were hoeing. The man saw me, and I started to run. "Halt!" he cried, but I kept on as fast as I could go.
I passed thoo the man's yard and on into the thick woods. I was sure I could give him the dodge in the woods.
He went to his house and got a gun, and him and another man follered me. By and by they saw me when I didn’t see them, and they hid and let me come up to whar they was, like I tol' you.
"Stop!" the man called, "stop or I'll shoot."
"Shoot and be hanged!" I shouted, and I started to run. He fired at me and I heard the shots flyin' past my head. I stopped in about ten mile, I reckon.
But that same day I got betrayed. They never did ketch me fairly. I was betrayed by my own color. I'd gone to a house to git something to eat, and the people thar sent word to their master that I was at their house. I didn’t know nothin' 'bout that, and I stayed around and stayed around till they asked me to spend the night. So I went to bed, and I'd been in bed long enough to git asleep when I heard a knocking. Up I jumped and went to climb out of the winder, but I found two men standing outside with sticks ready to knock me down.
Then I ran to the do', and I couldn't git out thar either. A man and a great big dog were in the way. The dog would have torn me to pieces. I had to give up that time. Yes, that's what I done. The dog backed my judgment about fightin'. So I just made myself easy and gin up. They crossed my hands and tied 'em with a rope. When they fix yo' that way they can carry yo' anywhar they want. They took me down to the gin house and tied me inside to one of the timbers of the building and locked the do'.
The next day the man what cotch me carried me home in his buggy, and he had me tied to the seat so I couldn’t hurt him nor git away nohow. I'd been gone near a month. I went off when they were choppin' cotton, and when I come back they was pullin' fodder in June. My master blamed the overseer for bein' so rough with me as to make me run away, and he turned him off and made him pay for ev'y day I'd lost.
I was whipped a little bit for runnin' away, but that was the last whippin' ever I had. My master got so he liked me, and he wouldn’t let no overseer hit me. "That man is smart," he'd say. "He'll do what yo' tell him, but he'll fight if yo' try to lay on the lash."
After the war began my master let me go down to Vicksburg Sundays to work on the wharves. I got forty cents an hour in Secesh money. I'd help git the cotton and the sugar on and off the boats. Yo' know I must have been a pretty stout feller to roll those cotton bales and those hogsheads of sugar. Any time a hogshead broke yo' could eat all the sugar yo' wanted and take home as much as yo' pleased, too.
When the army commenced to fortify the place ev'y planter had to send so many hands to dig trenches. The officers would come and press you. I was one of those that had to go. We camped a little outside of the town. They kep' us workin' pretty hard diggin' pits and makin' forts. But I was a man then, and they couldn’t hurt me with no work. We were out thar in the camp till the Yankees come and run us away. They'd th'ow balls over disaway from the river thoo the co'thouse steeple, and they'd th'ow 'em right into camp and git us runnin' worse 'n dogs. We'd done camped five miles from whar their mortar boats were over yander beyond the bend of the river hid out of sight under the banks. So we thought we was out of their reach, but we wasn’t.
They th'owed those grape and canister just for a pastime. Yo' could see the shells comin' in the night red as blood, and we'd hide behind trees. If a shell bust whar some people was it would kill ev'ybody around. Sometimes a solid shot would hit and cut off a tree, or it might cut off a big branch which would fall and kill the people down below. They fired solid balls bigger 'n yo' head.
The Rebels kep' us in that camp until they was ready to let us go, and hit looked like they wanted to have us git killed. We couldn’t leave the camp at night without strikin' a picket line, and them pickets would shoot the heart out of you.
Thar was one gun back up hyar on Fort Hill that the soldiers called "Whistling Dick." She growled when she fired like she was goin' to eat yo' up. Yo' could hear her twenty mile. I was hyar when they put that gun up thar, befo' the Yankees got so bad. Well, Whistling Dick sot up thar keepin' the Yankees back, and I didn’t think they'd ever git her, but they did. They th'owed a ball right plumb in her mouth and plugged her. That was done with one of their little jackass pieces, as they called 'em, — a gun that fired a steel-p'inted ball. The ball wa'n't larger 'n yo' arm, but the front end was finished like an augur. When it struck anything hit would turn and go in. Even if hit struck mighty thick iron hit would bore its way thoo.
I done run away from hyar at last. That wasn’t a week befo' the surrender, I reckon. As soon as Vicksburg went up I started back. I come in of a night and brought my wife and three or fo' children. We wanted to be whar we'd have the Union soldiers for protection. I put my family in the ol' Prentiss House, which was a big hotel with twenty or thirty rooms. Mo' than three hundred black people was in thar. They died like sheep, and we lost all our children but one.
Then I j'ined the army and had to go away. I sent my wife money, but after awhile the letters was returned to me. In June, 1866, I was mustered out down in Mobile, and I ain' never been thar no mo' since. I come back hyar, and the Prentiss House, whar I'd left my wife, was gone. Hit was torn down in a hundred pieces. Some said my wife and child had gone up the river on an island, but I couldn’t never find 'em or hear anything mo' of 'em.
Well, hyar I am. I could do anything when I was young, but now I 'm old and cain' do nothin' but eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow I die. Thar, I done tol' yo' enough, and hit's all truth — yes, sir, hit's all truth!
1 He was a gray, sinewy old negro in a two-room shack in the ridge of a rough hill that was only separated from the business section of Vicksburg by a deep ravine. Roundabout were other shacks with their tiny garden patches. They clung to the steep slopes in a curious helter-skelter, linked together by irregular, narrow lanes. The old man lay half-clothed on a low bed and tossed about and scratched while he talked. The odors of the place were not very delectable, and I sat as close as I conveniently could to an open door.