Monthly Archives: October 2019

639. In The Canebrake 3

“Cotton, how come you’re so pale?”

The older man said, “Shit!”, and grinned. He wouldn’t have answered anyone else, but he had known Titus all the boy’s life, and had known his parents before that.

“It’s a long story, passed down,” he said. “My mother’s mother’s mother was a pale, good lookin’ woman. I suppose she had some white in her, I don’t know how much. Her master caught her one day in the fields and that’s how my granny came about. She was half white plus whatever her mother already was.

“My granny got sold to her master’s cousin, and he caught her out when she was washin’ clothes in the creek. That’s how my mother got to be three-quarters white, and then some.

“She got sold too, when she was still young. She grew up to be a rare, beautiful woman, so they made her a house slave and she had six of us. She never got married, but the boss’s son spent a lot of time in her room, so we all came out pale as cotton. That’s how I got my name.

“He kept my sisters and sold me to Bullfrog.”

Titus said, “I always wondered.”

Cotton shook his head, not so much angry as bemused. He said, “Hell, I’m whiter than half the so-called white people in Tennessee, for all the good it does me.”

Titus was quiet for a while, then he asked, “So you’re going north to freedom. How far are you going to go?”

“How far would you go?”

Titus chuckled. “Cotton, if you want my advice, keep walking north ’til your feet freeze to the ground. Then thaw them out and go further.”

“Sounds right.”

“You going to stay black, or pass for white?”

“What do you think? If I say I’m a free negro, what’ll that get me? If I say I’m white, they’ll treat me like a man.

“I’m going to find me a poor, good-lookin’ white woman, and we’re going to have a batch of pale colored kids. And I’m never going to tell her. And I’m never going to let my kids know that their daddy started out life as a nigger.”

=================

The night wore on. There were worse things than bogles in the night around the two of them.

For Titus, there were soldiers; men, true enough, but full of evil intent. They were of his own people, his own race, his own nation, but they had come for the Cherokees that his parents had devoted their lives to, and that he had lived his life among. They had come for them and had carried them away, out of a country which had been theirs since before the white men ever came, and toward a land none of them had ever seen.

And for Cotton, there were men who looked like Titus — looked like Cotton, near enough, though they would ever acknowledge it — men who would take him into captivity and sell his body as if it had no soul. As if he were not almost entirely white. As if some of those soldiers were not at least as black as he was, but don’t say it! They would kill you if you said it.

And what if Cotton had been all black, not mostly white. And what if Titus were a Cherokee, instead of Scots and German. And what if those soldiers were as white as they claimed to be. What then? Would it matter? Really matter?

So the wind made its noises in the canebrake, and the trees moaned. So Titus’s eyes were wide in a white face and Cotton’s eyes were wide in an almost-white face. So the waterhorses frolicked in the swamp, and the moccasins slithered through the stagnant water, and the frogs croaked like the toads of Armageddon.

So the darkness was filled with all the fearful creatures out of Scotland — and out of Africa as well, for that matter. Cotton too would have his own demons, brought with his people from their old home across the ocean, and now hiding in the canebrake with the bogles, and the soldiers, and the rattlesnakes.

Even if it weren’t All Hallow’s Eve — even if the barriers between Earth and Hell had not thinned and broken — they might as well have.

Cotton raised his cup and drank the tea made of herbs he had found in the swamp. He handed it across the fire, and Titus’s lips touched the same cup as he drank the same liquid. Cotton said, “In the morning I go north.”

Titus replied, “In the morning I go west.”

They would not meet again. They both knew it, but neither said so.

Fire and death and the hangman. The slave catchers and the block. They are all real, but a man goes on.

Still, it had been good to see Cotton one more time.

======================

Not a Halloween story, you say? No ghosts? I disagree.

These wraiths of fiction never lived, and the men of that era who did live are long gone to wherever souls go. But they still haunt us today, and they will probably haunt our children as well.

638. In The Canebrake 2

A voice out of the darkness called, “Titus?” It shook him; he had expected almost anything except someone who knew his name. “Is that you, Titus Young?” the soft voice repeated.

In answer, he kneed his horse and rode further into the light of the fire. The hidden voice said, “You scared hell out of me.”

“You didn’t do my heart any good either, Cotton.”

A man of middle age came out of the canebrake and Titus swung down to walk up to the fire. Even though they had known each other most of Titus’s life, they didn’t shake hands, because Cotton was a slave.

Or had been. The fact that he was alone in the dark, not far from the Ohio border suggested he had run away. That left a lot of questions. Titus had been told that the Cherokees were allowed to take their slaves with them, and Cotton had been with Bullfrog since he was a boy.

Cotton was the one who taught Titus most of what he knew about hunting, fishing, and tracking, and just keeping alive in the hills and the swamps. That counted for a lot, but Bullfrog and Salali were the Cherokee couple who had adopted Titus when his parents died. Even if Chief Ross had told them to do it, and even if Bullfrog hadn’t paid much attention to him afterward, Titus still owed them both a debt of loyalty.

Titus asked, “Why are you here? What happened to Bullfrog and Salali?”

“I’m sorry to tell you, Titus,” the older man said. “I stayed with them as long as they were alive.”

“Go on.”

“Salali was sick all summer. By the time we left, she had no business traveling, but the soldiers didn’t give us any choice. She died two days along the trail.”

“And Bullfrog?”

“He was hurt bad inside when Salali died. He rode all day, he ate, he laid under his blanket at night, but I don’t think he ever slept. After about two weeks, he died too.

“The soldiers didn’t want to give us time to bury him, so I carried him out of camp in the middle of the night. Those soldiers weren’t much. It wasn’t hard to avoid them. I found a nice place under a pecan tree and buried him, same as I had buried Salali. When I finished, I stuck the shovel in the ground like a gravestone and started walking north. I was already out of the camp and there was no reason to go back.”

So. Bullfrog and Salali hadn’t been the best pair of substitute parents, but Titus missed them. To be fair, he had been no prize either when they got him. Headstrong; too young to be independent, but determined to be independent anyway. He had spent most of his time with Cotton, learning Cherokee ways from the slave, the same way Cotton had learned when he came to Bullfrog as a boy.

“Was Francesca in your group?” Titus asked.

“Your wife? Why would she be with us? She wasn’t Cherokee.”

“The soldiers took her anyway.”

“That’s why you’re following?” Titus nodded. Cotton said, “I never saw her, but there were several groups that moved out at different times. She might have been in a different group.”

“Okay,” Titus said, swallowing his disappointment. “Don’t matter, I’ll still find her.”

Cotton bustled about the fire, pulling something out of the ashes. It was meat, long, slender, cylindrical. Snake. Titus didn’t mind snakes, as long as they were dead. And if they were dead, you might as well cook them. When Cotton started to tear it with his fingers, Titus said, “Don’t you have a knife?”

“Got nothing. I should have kept the shovel, but it seemed too much trouble.”

Titus went to his horse and took a knife out of his saddlebag. “Keep it,” he said as he handed it over. “I’ve got another one.” Cotton grunted his thanks and split the snake. It tasted like squirrel, and it was as welcome as a feast.

Except for munching, they ate in silence. Titus hadn’t seen Cotton in a couple of years, and the time showed in extra wrinkles. It was good to see him again.

Titus had been born to a German father who had died too soon, adopted by a Cherokee father who had not been able to handle him, and had learned most of what he knew from this black slave. Only he wasn’t really that black.

“Cotton,” he said, “how come you’re so pale?”

This story will conclude tomorrow. After all, that will be Halloween.

637. In The Canebrake 1

The background for this story is told in 636. Half Breeds, Various.

In the Canebrake

It was a long, cold afternoon, with spits of snow that were slow melting. There wasn’t any green left in the grass; it was all the crackly brown of late fall. The year was 1838; the month was somewhere in that no-man’s land where October slides into November on a path slippery with sleet.

Titus’s mare was holding out, but he was treating her with extra care since she had lamed up a week earlier. Somewhere ahead of him the main body of the displaced Cherokees was moving west, but he didn’t know how far behind them he was. He had been riding after rumors, picked up at wood cutters’ camps and isolated cabins since he left eastern Tennessee. Now he was tangled up in a canebrake, following a narrow, muddy trail that paralleled one of the many tributaries of the Tennessee River. It wouldn’t be long now until he reached the Ohio — he thought. He hadn’t been really sure of his location for days, and the low overcast sky didn’t help any.

He pulled up at a familiar churring sound, followed by a slithering in the leaves. Canebrake rattler, probably. Titus had lived around snakes all his life, but he had never gotten to like them. Even worse were cottonmouths. They didn’t even have the decency to warn a man before they struck.

It was getting on dark, and the fog was rising from the stagnant waters beyond the trail. He was two days hungry and there wasn’t a scrap of food in his saddlebags. Pretty soon his horse would not be able to find her way ahead, but there was no place big enough or dry enough to spread a blanket. The tall canes around him seemed to close in as the light failed.

He could smell the swamp. He thought of waterhorses and the sluagh, and all the other fairy creatures his Scottish mother had told him about. Those weren’t comfortable thoughts for a night this dark and cold, on a trail this uncertain, at the approach of All Hallow’s Eve.

Something erupted from the brush at his side and hurled itself scrawking into the air. An egret probably, or maybe a heron, but when he saw it for a moment silhouetted against the moon, it became a boobrie, come all the way from the lochs of the highlands to haunt the Scottish half of his soul.

Then he saw the light, faint, almost luminescent in the distance. Perhaps the light of . . .

Titus took hold of his imagination and put it firmly away. What he needed to worry about tonight were not creatures designed to frighten children, but men with guns and knives, and the intent to do a traveller harm.

He eased forward; the sound of his horse’s hooves was swallowed up by the soft ground. There was a spot wide enough for a simple camp, and somebody had managed to find enough dry wood for a fire.

Then the mare stepped into a puddle. It was a small sound, but the figure by the fire vanished. First he was there and then he wasn’t, and he didn’t leave even a hint of movement in the canes.

Titus froze in place. His rifle was in a scabbard at his knee, but pulling it out now might cause the trouble he was trying to avoid. He hallooed the fire in a low voice, but got no answer.

Titus kicked his mare in the ribs and started forward, pausing at the edge of the firelight. He called out, “How about welcoming some company. I’ve been riding all day and this is the first wide spot in the trail I’ve seen in hours.”

No answer.

“I’m not going on in the dark. You might as well come out, unless you plan to stay squatting in the mud ’til morning.”

Still nothing, and a shiver ran up his spine. He wished he hadn’t been thinking of bogles. Then a voice out of the darkness softly called his name.

This story will continue on Wednesday and conclude on Thursday.

636. Half Breeds, Various

A couple of days ago, in late September, I was beginning to search around for an idea for this year’s Halloween post. I’m not into things that go bump in the night, but if there were ever a holiday that calls for the telling of stories, it would be All Hallows Eve. Then I remembered a scene in an unwritten novel.

Of all the novels I’ve written in my head only, not on paper, Titus Young is the most complete. I know who my protagonist is, I know his antecedents and I know his offspring. Titus Young is the middle book in three well plotted but mostly unwritten generational historical novels.

I think I would write it next, if it weren’t for money. I could write five SF novels in the time it would take me to research and write this one lengthy historical — and I will probably do that — but Titus Young still hangs in there, taunting me.

Titus Young himself was a half breed — half Scottish and half German, that is. I assume that the term half breed is offensive now; I certainly haven’t herd it in years. During my childhood it was in common use especially in Oklahoma. Nevertheless, now that I’ve gotten your attention by the post title, I will switch to mixed race to avoid offending modern sensibilities.

Titus’s Scottish mother met his German-speaking Moravian father and they married in the unwritten novel Nativity. They moved from Pennsylvania to south-eastern Tennessee to be missionaries to the Cherokees. Moravians often did that. Titus was born there and the Youngs became respected for their compassionate work. When Titus’s parents died during an epidemic, John Ross, principal chief of the Cherokees, himself mixed race Scottish and Cherokee, arranged for Titus to be adopted by one of his relatives. Thus Scottish-German Titus became legally Cherokee, without a drop of Indian blood.

As a young man, Titus took a flatboat down the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers with a load of cargo for New Orleans. His boatmates were two white brothers. They sold their wares in New Orleans, but on their return up the Nachez Trace a disagreement led to a lifelong feud.

While in New Orleans, Titus met and courted a beautiful young Italian girl. Actually, she had an Italian father and a Natchez Indian mother, but she so hated her Indian heritage that she chose to pass as Italian. On a later trip to New Orleans, Titus met her again and they married. They returned to Tennessee where they opened a business.

Some years later, the events leading up to the Cherokee removal occurred. When the soldiers come to round up the Cherokees, Titus was away. His old enemies informed the soldiers that Titus and his wife were Cherokee.

Titus’s wife was half Indian, but no one knew that. She was believed to be Italian, and Titus was Scots-German, but Titus was an adopted Cherokee and she was married to him. That was enough for the soldiers. She was taken away with the rest of the tribe.

This irony of this left her with much soul-searching to do as she experienced the horrors of the Trail of Tears, and saw those horrors inflicted on her husband’s adopted people.

Titus returned, found himself a fugitive, found his enemies in possession of his business, and fled. He headed west, retaining his freedom but following the path on which the soldiers had taken the Cherokees. While he was on this journey, he came across a runaway slave named Cotton, whom he knew from when he was a boy, and that scene will form this year’s Halloween post.

==============

In the 1830’s, America was full of half-breeds (to use the contemporary term). Even more appear in this story than I’ve presented so far. A lot of them were passing for white, and making life hard for the known half-breeds. Gay people didn’t invent the idea of being in the closet. We’ve always had closets.

Titus Young is one more way for me to explore that notion, but it is also just a great story. It begins on a Mississippi riverboat, where Titus meets his old enemies years after the events described above. They don’t recognize him, which allows him to engages them in a poker game and trick one of them into challenging him to a duel.

This part of the novel will be narrated by a young professional gambler who gets roped into being Titus’s second. During the night before the duel, Titus tells the young man his life story, which we will see in a series of flashbacks, and in the morning . . .

But I guess that’s enough for now. The scene which will become the Halloween post will begin next Monday.

635. That Many?

It’s hard for me to believe that I am two months into the fifth year of this site. On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that I’ve done this much writing in only four plus years.

According to WordPress, this will make 1289 posts. Some were longer, some shorter, a few quite short like this one, and others were quite long. They probably average roughly 700 words. I’ve made a few repeats, so by a rough estimate that’s about 800,000 words.

To be fair, about half of that was material in the form of old stories from my long and checkered past, mostly presented in Serial. Let’s call the rest a bit more than 400,000 new words.

No, I didn’t believe it either, so I checked my figures twice.

That’s the equivalent of three or four modern novels, or about seven novels the length they were when I started writing. Truthfully, it’s easier to write a post than the equivalent number of words from a novel, but still . . .

Oh, by the way, during that time I also spent a lot of effort playing editorial ping-pong getting Cyan into print, and wrote two new novels, The Cost of Empire and Like Clockwork, and to date about twenty percent of the novel Dreamsinger.

Retirement from teaching middle school has been fun, but not relaxing.

All this cogitation came about as I was considering a novel I didn’t write (yet) which I plan to tell you something about on Wednesday.

634.1 Critter Count

I have a post about two new critters who came to visit, called Stinky Boy and his Cousin. It was supposed to be posted yesterday, but the tribute to Alexi Leonov pushed it forward to the Monday before Thanksgiving.

As I was writing that post, I was a little uneasy. It ended up mentioning a large cadre of critters. Even though I made it clear that many only came by once in more than a decade, I still wondered if some readers would imagine that I live in a virtual zoo, instead of normal foothills full of sweet but ordinary creatures, and more rarely visited by the exotic.

Then today happened.

We went out early by car to watch a cattle drive which happens twice a year, going to the high country in spring and back down to the foothills in the fall. The critter count included cows, horses, dogs, and cowboys, but they don’t really count because they are all domesticated. Except the cowboys.

Driving back to my house, I had to brake for quail flying across the road. Driving on down toward the valley afterward, we had to dodge a tarantula crossing the road —

“Why did the tarantula cross the road? Mating season.”

— then passed a flock of turkeys in a neighbor’s yard. Still less than two miles from home I saw an egret standing at the edge of the lake waiting for a fish. Yesterday at the same spot I saw a flock of geese floating on the water.

A moment later a vulture swooped down. For a moment we were bracing for a collision but he was only interested in a piece of road kill in the ditch.

Okay, you’re right. I do live in a zoo.

634. A Tribute to Alexi Leonov

This is a substitute post. The one I had planned about my two latest animal neighbors will have to be pushed forward to sometime in late November, probably just before Thanksgiving.

The reason for the change is that Alexi Leonov died in Moscow on October 11, and I just became aware of it tonight (Oct. 15). You’ve probably never heard of Leonov, and that is a shame. He was the first person to walk in space, in a flight filled with incredible dangers. I wrote a post about the flight for its 51st anniversary, called Spacecraft Threatened by Bears. I will present it again below, changed only by the addition of a few links to other related posts.

Spacecraft Threatened by Bears

Yes, I agree; it’s a snarky title. It’s also accurate, believe it or not.

I had the great good fortune of living through the early days of manned space flight. I was nine years old when the Russians orbited the first satellite, and the early manned flights came when I was in high school. I watched every American launch with fascination and envy, but the Russian launches were shrouded in secrecy. I knew only the bare minimum that all Americans knew. I’m not sure the president knew much more.

During those early days, nothing was routine. Every mission was dangerous. They still are, of course, but not so much as then. American failures were there for all the world to see, while the Soviets kept their’s secret. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, information about the early Russian space program became generally available, but by then few people cared. I did, and I sought out the stories.

Today is the fifty-first anniversary of the first space walk — by the USSR. I would have brought it to you on the fiftieth anniversary, but I wasn’t blogging yet. Voskhod 2 was a triumph, and also a flight which went spectacularly awry.

Voskhod 2

March 18-19, 1965

The first six manned Soviet spaceflights were aboard Vostok craft. Gagarin became the first man in space on Vostok 1, Tereshkova became the first woman in space on Vostok 6. I plan to talk about them on their anniversaries, in April and June.  [For those posts, see 131. First Into Space, 132. Chasing Cosmonauts, and 168. A Woman in Space.]

Vostok astronauts wore space suits throughout their flights and landed by personal parachute separate from the descent module. Before the second generation Soyuz spacecraft came on line, the Soviets launched two additional manned missions on modified Vostoks called Voskhod.

On Voskhod, a backup solid fuel retrorocket was added to the spherical descent module, another additional rocket softened the landing so that the cosmonauts could remain within the descent module, and the ejection seat was no longer used. This allowed Voskhod 1 to carry three astronauts where Vostok had carried only one.

Voskhod 1 cosmonauts flew without space suits, as did early Soyuz missions. Voskhod 2 cosmonauts Belyayev and Leonov wore space suits because they were scheduled for the first space walk. Their craft also carried an inflatable airlock.

American space walks first took place during the Gemini program (see post 87). That craft had two hatches but no airlock; both astronauts were in vacuum during the entire spacewalk.

On Voskhod 2, Leonov crawled into the airlock, sealed the inner door and opened the outer one. Belyayev remained in the pressurized descent module.

For ten minutes, Leonov remained within the airlock but exposed to the vacuum of space, then he slipped free and floated on a tether for another ten minutes. He was called back in to terminate his space walk, and his difficulties began.

(Or perhaps they had already begun. Some sources state that he “experienced a disorienting euphoria” during the space walk and other sources state that he suffered bends-like symptoms after the space walk was over; I haven’t been able to confirm these statements.)

It is certain that he had extreme difficulty reentering the airlock. His space suit had over inflated; the boots and gloves had slipped beyond his toes and fingertips, and his suit had increased in girth. He had to vent part of his rapidly depleting oxygen in order to bring his suit down in size, and even then had to enter the airlock head first, instead of feet first as planned. Once inside the airlock, he had extreme difficulty contorting his body to close the outer door. All the time, his body was heating up dangerously. Since he was surrounded by vacuum, there was nothing to carry away the heat his body was generating.

Once air pressure had been restored in the airlock, Belyayev opened the inner door and Leonov was safe. For the moment. As he said in an article for Smithsonian’s Air and Space magazine in 2005, “the difficulties I experienced reentering the spacecraft were just the start of a series of dire emergencies that almost cost us our lives.”

The mission had achieved it’s goal and it was time to return, but just before the scheduled time for firing retro rockets the cosmonauts discovered that their automatic guidance system was malfunctioning. It took time to prepare for manual entry, so they had to wait one orbit, which would make them miss their return point by a thousand miles. Most of that orbit they were out of radio communications. When communications were restored, ground control asked them where they had landed, not knowing of their difficulties.

Their orbit was set, but the time they would fire their retro rockets would determine where on that orbit they would land. They chose a target just past the Urals. Using the clumsy and difficult manual backup equipment, they achieved the correct attitude and fired the retro rockets in the conical rear portion of the craft called the orbital module. The orbital and landing modules were supposed to separate ten seconds after retrofire. They didn’t.

The two cosmonauts knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. Instead of the steady press of force against their backs as they decelerated, they found themselves whipped about by confused forces that exceeded ten gravities. A communication cable between the two modules had failed to release, and now both modules were spinning about each other, tethered by the cable.

Finally, about 60 miles up, the cable burned through and the cosmonauts were freed. The drogue chute deployed, and then the main chute. All was peaceful and in order – briefly. Then it became dark as they dropped below cloud cover, the final rocket fired to slow them to landing speed, and they landed in 6 feet of snow.

They were 1200 miles beyond their intended landing point.

They blew the explosive bolts to release the hatch. It didn’t open. They had landed in the middle of a forest and the hatch was held shut by a tree. By yanking violently they dislodged it and it fell away, lost in the snow.

They made their way out of the spacecraft and waded through snow to a small clearing. Bikonur had not heard their landing signal, but a passing cargo plane had. It circled, and was soon joined by other planes and helicopters, but none of them could land in the rough taiga. Pilots threw a bottle of cognac; it broke. They threw warm clothing which got caught in the trees, but at least two pairs of wolfskin boots made it to the ground.

The light was failing. The cosmonauts returned to their landing module for shelter. Leonov was walking in calf deep sweat still trapped in his space suit from his space walk. Both cosmonauts stripped, removed the liners from their space suits and wring them as dry as possible, then put the on again along with the wolf skin boots and abandoned the useless space suits. The crawled into the landing module for the night, well aware that the taiga was filled with bears and wolves, and that this was mating season, when they were most aggressive.

The hatch was out of reach. The lights failed, but the circulation fan ran all night. The temperature dropped to 22 below zero.

A rescue party arrived on skis the next morning; they chopped trees to build a small log cabin and a big fire. The cosmonauts spent a second night, then skied out to where a second, larger party had chopped down enough trees for a helicopter to land.

I guess they made ‘em tough in those days. I suspect they still do.