|Charleston, S.C., during the Civil War.|
in background. Civil War
Jack Stone, the cool, collected, braggart, exaggerator, smooth talker, putter-downer and sometimes bully, said he had found it lying on the river bank just a’waitin for him to come along and snatch it and take it home.
“It was a’beggin me to take it,“ he said.
But that wasn't exactly true. In actuality, he stole it out of his grandpa’s store near the slave auction, having broken into it the previous night. The tag was still on the reel. One dollar. “They call me the midnight raider,” Jack said laughing. In several other of his midnight raids, Jack had broken into Mike Hawkins' father's funeral home and appropriated gold watches, rings and other midnight hour trophies from whatever corpses happened to be in attendance. “Won’t do’em no good no more nohow,” Jack pronounced with finality of conviction.
Licorice Sticks and Fishing Hooks
It was April, 1853, in the heart of the South, eight years before the Civil War, wonderful years for most folks, even for some of the black folks, but many of ‘em didn't cotton much to their lot in life, being slaves and all, and havin' to be sold, or separated from their families, and work the plantations and cotton fields pickin' all day.
was bustlin' with activity and politics.
And not all of the white folks had it easy neither. Many worked in the
same fields twelve hours a day. Other black people were free and some even had businesses in Charleston. Me, I was eleven years old and the whole debate
about freein' the Negroes or keepin' them slaves or bringin' 'em into the new
territories west of the Mississippi just
conquered from Mexico
didn't mean much to me. I mean, I didn't pay much attention. Those were the
good ole days runnin' around with Jack and Mike Hawkins, playin' at adventures
and doin' whatever we wanted to do. We were young and the country was young and Jack and me wanted to explore the whole world.
Stole that pole? No. Borrowed it. That’s the way Jack liked to view the matter. For he fully intended to give it all back sometime. Everythin' he took from his grandpa’s store-all of the fishin' gear includin' the poles, bobbers, hooks, sinkers, lines, the rabbits feet, the coins from the cash drawer, the sour balls, the fire balls, the lemon balls, the honey suckers, the orange, lemon, and lime pops, the salt candy, the peanut brittle, the licorice sticks, and lemonade jars, not to mention the huntin' gear with boots and a jacket and even a musket. Jack fully intended to return all of it someday.
And I believed him. I’d never seen him return anythin' yet but he sounded convincing. He was always borrowin' this or that from somebody who never knew it was Jack doing the borrowin'. And he intended to give back the canoe he borrowed from the old Indian across the river down from the old Smythe plantation - he probably didn't need it anyway, Jack concluded. He’d give that back too if only he could find it. Said he awoke one day in the grass on the riverbank and the darn thing that he left tied to a stick in the mud was gone just like that; said that perhaps the old Indian sensed where it was and took it while Jack was a’sleepin. Indians have special powers of sense and can find anythin' that was lost or taken from them even if it was across a river, Jack said, which it was in this case. Although Jack didn't have much schooling-skippin' out as much as he could get away with and all-he knew a lot about Indians and knew what was what and who was doin' what on the river.
The Tree House Disappearance
And one day, Jack fully dismantled Mike’s tree house down the path from his house-actually it was Jack and me who done the dismantlin' after Jack convinced me that my presence and assistance was imperative. We rebuilt it across the river in a secret place and put up a stockade around the tree to keep the Indians from attackin' us if they had a mind to. Although no-one in our parts had been attacked by Indians that I knew of, they were sure attackin' the settlers out west. At least that’s what Jack said. They would charge on their horses a'hollerin' and a'screamin' and shooting their arrows and a’throwin their tomahawks just when you least expected it and the next thing you knew you was dead. That’s what Jack said. He didn't read the newspapers because he couldn't read too good but he talked to people on the river and he knew everyone on the river, and so he got all the news a’fresh, before the newspapers even had a hint of what was going on. “So what's the sense in reading newspapers?” said Jack. “You can’t believe everything you read anyway.” He had a point.
Anyway, Jack and I used the tree house all the time takin' care whenever we went there that no-one followed. Because if anyone got wind of the fact that Mike’s tree-house had been resettled across the river and that Jack and I did the resettlin', we’d have to leave town or forever live under the shame of knowin' that everyone knew who done it. Jack probably wouldn’t care but I would.
So Jack had this secret power over me. Whenever Mike was around, Jack would make obscure references to the snitchin' and smile at me when Mike wasn't looking. For instance he’d say, “Hey puke-face (he called Mike this and many other contemptuous names), we’re going across the river today to our secret fort! Wanna come?”
And Mike would say, “Hey pig-face, I wouldn’t go to the slop-pen with you and who cares about your secret fort. What’s so secret about it anyway and who cares?”
“Well you’d care if you were there but you’ll never know because we’re not going to reveal its location to a mealy-mouthed little pipsqueak like yourself,” said Jack.
“Yeah, you’re just big talk. You really don’t have a fort across the river. You don’t even have a boat. You’re just doing what you do best-bragging. Maybe if you went to school now and then you wouldn't sound so stupid,” Mike said.
“Yeah, well if you saw our fort you’d cry like a baby,” said Jack. “But cryin' come pretty natural to a sissy like yourself anyway,” said Jack.
“Why would I cry like a baby? You’re such a bull talker. Nobody believes anything you say because you’re such a gifted liar, just like your ole man?”
“Sticks and stones can break ma’bones but you, you silly little twit, the only thing strong about you is your breath. Now run along kiddie before I have to teach you a lesson about respecting your elders,” said Jack.
“What you twelve and me eleven, big deal!”
“Run along sonny boy before I have to squash you like a bug. Hey why don’t you go play dolls in your stupid little tree house?” said Jack.
“I don’t have a tree house anymore. Some loser took it away!”
“Oh really. Hear that Jeremy? Some loser took it away. Well, if you were smart enough to hide it in a good place and smart enough to know how to keep a
secret rather than telling the whole world, it’d still be there. Maybe you might learn someday in that silly little schoolhouse where to build a secret tree house. Maybe the darn thing’s on the other side of the river,” said Jack with a taunting smile on his face.
“It was you wasn't it? I thought so,” said Mike.
“What would I want with your piece-of-crap of a tree house? But if I was looking to find it, I’d think it was a’taken by someone with a strong sense of adventure, someone with some real smarts who’d know how to make good use of a tree house, and put it in a place where it’d be real hard to find.
"And I wouldn't go a’blabbing about to everyone in town that I got a tree house. And I sure would never take anyone there who I didn't trust completely. I mean that just shows ignorance and stupidness to take someone to your secret hideout you think’s a friend when he ain't no such thing and could care less about you. Nobody but a dimwit would do that! That’s why I’d have taken it to the other side, and then I’d watch the fool who built it in such a stupid place in the first place and then couldn't find it for nothing so I could laugh at him. That way I’d be able to see just how dumb he really was!” said Jack.
Mike was proud of his tree house. He invited many of the boys in our neighborhood out to see it. But he had this nasty habit of pushin' kids off and calling it an accident. One time Tommy Banks broke his ankle after Mike pushed him off. It was ten feet off the ground. But Mike said it was an accident. He pushed me off once and that was the last time I ever went there with him. I refused to give him my rock candy. If he had asked for it I’d have given him some but he wanted it all and he was demanding, not askin'. The other boys he pushed off didn't go back neither. Sometimes Mike threw rocks up at them after conning them into goin' up the rope ladder first. When they’d raise their head above the three-foot stick siding, Mike would wing a rock at them as hard as he could. So they would stay there trapped with their heads down for sometimes an hour or until they agreed to give Mike some candy or firecrackers or some of that fools gold that he liked so much. He’d force them to leave their shoes in the tree house until they paid up, which inevitably was the same day.
It was no surprise to anyone that Jack and Mike weren't friends but were such sworn enemies. Yet they had so much in common. Jack liked to throw rocks at kids too. One time he threw a rock at me hittin' me square in the forehead while I was forty feet above the ground having swung out on a hemp rope that hung from that birch tree on a ridge in the woods. I nearly fainted and fell but managed to hold on. Jack claimed he really didn't mean to hit me but he had thrown rocks at me before on the swing, usually when I wasn't lookin'. That’s when I started to distance myself from him and hang around more with Mike. You couldn't really trust Jack as he did things so much on the spur of the moment that he usually didn't know what he was going to do next. But he had his good points. You just had to look real hard. And one time another boy broke both his arms fallin' from the same swing and I wondered if Jack had been with him which he often was. Needless to say then, Jack and Mike hated each other. They called one another names to their faces or behind their backs, it never made any difference.
A Dirty Trick
When Mike took Jimmy Swanson out on the path to see his tree house the same day that Jack stole it Jack said it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. But that wasn't spur of the moment stuff, that was pure malicious planning. That was the other side of Jack. He liked to bait people and then trap ‘em and then watch ‘em squirm before letting up. He always let up in the end so they’d know they was beaten and who it was who beat them. That’s what he really wanted. He loved to beat others. He had to win no matter what. He was the most competitive person I’d ever come across bar none. Not even Mike could hold a candle to Jack when it came to competition. Well, on that day we followed them through the green woods off to the side of the path, and behind them just as Jack planned, sometimes a’crawlin and a’listenin. We did all the planning at our secret fort across the river, at what was Mike’s tree-house. Jack was true to his style-he wasn't goin' to tell anyone where the fort was. He talked about it to kids in mysterious ways as though it was way out on the frontier with wild Indians but that’s as far as it went. He teased a boy’s imagination and the girls too when he had a mind to. Jack had asked Jimmy to ask Mike that day to show him his tree house. That was part of the trap. Mike wanted Jimmy’s bag of licorice so he thought it was a good idea to take him there. So we followed, silently a'listenin' to Mike tellin' Jimmy what a neat tree house it was but that he could never tell anyone its location, although everyone knew where it was. Jack said we had to be as quiet as Indians because we couldn't reveal our presence no matter what. So that’s what we did.
When we crawled the last twenty feet and settled behind a big yellow pine, we saw Mike’s baffled expression and Jack started rollin' on the ground tryin' as hard as he could to suppress laughter. We watched fascinated. Mike was lookin' up in the tree, then down and around, then up again and around again, and sayin' to Jimmy, “I know this is the place. What the beJesus? Who was it? Where’d it go? My tree house!”
“Who was what?“ said Jimmy totally confused.
Jack held his hand tightly over his bulgin' red cheeks and tears were rollin' from the corners of his dark eyes he was so overcome with amusement. It was the happiest I’d ever seen him though I suspected he wasn't really happy because it was a mean thing to do and I think he knew it. But it was kind of fun in a secretive way and Mike deserved what he was gettin' anyway after holdin' up all those other boys so to speak.
At school Jack and Mike would try to get one another in trouble. It became an ongoin' contest and nothin' the schoolmaster did could stop it. For instance Jack would whip a raspberry at master’s back when he turned to the blackboard, staining his white shirt and then blame it on Mike. Or Mike would try to copy Jack’s illegible enough handwriting and write a note to master with no signature telling him he was an idiot who couldn't teach because he didn't know the first thing about kids.
They hated one another throughout our school years even though they sometimes hung out together, usually when I was with one or the other. So they grudgingly played together sometimes. But usually they was sworn enemies never givin' the other any respect. It was as though they had hated one another so long they didn't know how else to act when the other was around. And neither wanted the other to see any sign of weakness by givin' any concession to friendship between them. That lasted until the end when Jack made the first and greatest concession I’d ever witnessed.
It was at
Gettysburg years later
when Jack, seein' a Yankee levelin' out his musket to shoot Mike in the back,
jumped between them and took the bullet.
Mike was spared because some instinct in Jack refused to let Mike be
shot in the back without his ever knowin' it. In a way, it was Jack’s final
victory over Mike because now Mike could never repay the deed and would always
be in Jack’s debt. At least this is the way I chose to see that dreadful event.
I thought about the earlier mischievous days when they constantly taunted
one another, ever since the first day of
school, and I realized that these seemingly meaningless pranks of childhood had
connected the three of us deeply and they could never be repeated. And when
Mike-who still held a deep resentment of Jack durin' the battle-saw his
childhood enemy sprawled and bloodied on the ground before him, he bawled like a little
boy. The three of us had seen many others shot by Yankees and sometimes even by
our own by accident. But this was different. This was like family. We had
naturally protected one another through campaigns like First Manassas , Shiloh and Cold Harbor. We was almost like the same blood cuz we came from the same
little corner of the earth where we shared our childhood and joys and
|Gettysburg Battlefield, Public Domain Photo|
So the childhood pranks seen in retrospect of years appeared not malicious, which in fact they were, partly, but golden times when young boys act tough and try to make their mark upon the world. They talked bigger than they were and they acted more ignorant than they should have acted but they were still golden times.
Please look for the next set of chapters next week in the continuation of this serialized novel, the full version to be published in May, 2013. Please provide comments and feedback below. If you like what you read, I would appreciate it if you would click on the G+ button below.