The following is a prequel to my unpublished manuscript, Striving After Wind.
It was Saturday and the cloudless dawn gave no indication to the wild fury of the night before. Theodore’s wagon wheels ground slowly through the muddy ruts toward the Evans farm. He’d awakened the undertaker before heading out and convinced him to relinquish a pine box. The undertaker gave Theodore a doubtful look, but complied when told it was needed for a sermon prop. Theodore was lucky. For someone who’d dealt with death on a regular basis, the man never attended a single church service. Wouldn’t have to justify the lie. With the pine box now full and rumbling behind him in the wagon bed, Theodore prayed that the Evanses were still asleep so he could break the news to Ulysses in a private manner.
The sky had been an inky purple when Theodore left home, but by the time he reached his destination, the sun appeared over the horizon. Bare trees dotted the large front yard of the Evans’ two-story white frame house. Five male slaves cleared away storm debris while an overseer urged them along. Theodore scanned the area and located Ulysses by a stack of hewn tree trunks. The herculean man was not hard to miss. His height and midnight skin made him look like an onyx obelisk against the landscape. Despite the coolness in the air, he was shirtless, wearing only an ill-fitting set of blue overalls. The huge rocks in his arms and chest rippled as he swung an axe high over his head and then brought it down on a log. It split with ease, barely making a sound. He wore a frown on his face as he concentrated on the task at hand. Ulysses was neither breathing hard nor breaking a sweat as Theodore stopped the wagon in front of him.
“Pas’ Teddy,” Ulysses said in a deep bass. He slung the axe over his shoulder and walked over to the wagon. The coffin in the back caught his attention. “I s’pose you here ‘cause Caroline and Lil Bit ran off las’ night. I got back here yest’day and they was gone.” He blinked several times then cleared his throat before pointing the axe toward the box. “Tha’s them you bringin’ back?”
Theodore climbed down from the wagon. He wiped his face with his white handkerchief then stuffed it into the back pocket of his trousers. “Just Caroline.” He wished he could wrap an arm around the man, but could only reach high enough to pat the giant’s shoulder.
Ulysses looked around and followed Theodore to the back of the wagon. Huge bubbles of water pooled in his eyes as he listened to Theodore recall last night’s events. He gulped back sobs, looking up to the sky as if waiting for something to come down and refute Theodore’s version. The only thing he could bring himself to do was stroke the coffin.
“Can’t I see her?” Ulysses finally whispered.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Ule. She was pretty beat up. Remember her the way she was.” Theodore stood quietly next to the grieving man. He waited for Ulysses to turn back from the coffin before donning his preacher’s hat and offering words of comfort.
“She’s resting in the arms of the Lord, now. There is no more pain or toil when we go to our Savior. She’s free.”
“It’s ‘cause-a me this happened. I couldn’t do nothin’ to help her. He was jus’ waitin’ for Miss Victoria to die so he could have my Caroline.” Ulysses snorted then shook his head. “Funny how a wrinkled-up ole lady had mo’ power to protect my wife than I did.” Then his face turned serious. “She have that baby?”
“A little girl she named Victoria.”
“Didn’t look like me at all, did it?” Ulysses voice was calm. When Theodore’s silence answered him, he walked back over to the wood chopping stump. Ulysses growled and with one fluid movement, split it with the axe, then commenced to destroy the rest of it. He didn’t turn back to Theodore until the stump was reduced to near-sawdust and the frantic rise and fall of his shoulders slowed to an even pace.
“Ule, Caroline was a very fair-skinned Negro—”
“Ev’rybody here know why I was loaned out all the time,” Ulysses said too loud.
“Don’t let that be the last memory of her.” Theodore hoped to quiet the angry man with his lowered voice. “We should bury her before—”
“But I don’t fault her none. The Lord trusted me wit’ her an’ I failed Him ‘cause I couldn’t stop that devil from gettin’ to her. At leas’ my Lil Bit’ll be okay. You got her, right? Don’t bring her back here.”
“Yes, but Ule—” Theodore was cut off by the appearance of David Evans and his father, Earl, on the front steps of the house. He studied their faces, wondering if traces of Caroline’s newborn could be found in one of them. He shivered at the thought of it being Earl’s child. The man’s round stomach protruded so far and low over his pants that he had to descend the porch sideways, drenched in sweat and gasping after each step. Dressed in all white from head to toe, he looked like a wet ball of cotton struggling down the stairs. The permanent rosiness in his swollen cheeks was the only source of color on the pale man. The poor fellow coughed and spat into a handkerchief after he waddled down to the ground.
Fortunately, young David took after his late mother with his slender body and golden features. Not counting his own gem of a wife, Theodore remembered Victoria Evans as a stately and gorgeous woman. She was the supreme ruler in her home and treated her only child like a prince. Helen had told him how Victoria insisted on bringing nine-year-old Caroline with her when she left her father’s house to marry Earl almost twenty years ago. Had his mother lived, David would have never dared lay a hand on the half-sister even Earl didn’t know about.
“To what do we owe this pleasure, Mr. Preacher?” David asked. He smoothed his hair from his face and walked to the back of Theodore’s wagon. “What’s this?” He rapped the wooden box with his knuckles.
“I found Caroline, dead, in the woods this morning. I was just here giving Ulysses the news.”
David’s face fell. He looked from Theodore and then to Ulysses, whose black eyes narrowed into sharp slits.
“She’s dead?” Earl finally asked, breaking the silence. He spat a brown substance on the ground and then swore. “Should-a known when wasn’t no breakfast to be had this mornin’. I tell you, Rev’rend, it’s like these niggers is evaporatin’ into the sky one by one! That was the only gal we had left on this place.” He looked to Ulysses and swore again. “I can’t afford to buy another one. Guess your little gal gotta take her place, now. Go get her so she can start breakfast. She done seen her mama do it ‘nough times. Then bury that one before she start stinkin’ to high heaven.”
“No,” David said. He stood closer to the coffin and ran his hand along the wood grain. He kept his back toward everyone as he brushed something away from his eyes. “You know how much Mother loved Caroline. I’ll handle this one, Daddy. G’on back in the house.”
Earl stared at his son in confusion. “Looks like your mother wasn’t the only one overly fond of this gal.” He waddled over to David and turned his son around by the shoulder to face him. “Boy, is you cryin’?!” When David said nothing in response, Earl spat again and slapped him with his white hat. “Good grief, boy! Glad your mama ain’t here to see this display. Well, suit yourself! Come on in and sit for a spell, Rev’rend.” Earl headed toward the direction of the house. He called over his shoulder, “Ulysses, you g’on and help them other boys clean that storm debris from the yard, hear?”
Ulysses hadn’t moved since the Evanses arrived. He stood with his jaw clenched, unrestrained tears flowing down his face. His chest heaved as he watched David stroke the coffin. For the first time since Theodore arrived, Ulysses began to sweat.
“You heard my daddy, Ulysses,” David said over his shoulder. “G’on over there with the others.”
Still gripping the axe, Ulysses walked over to David and smacked his hand from the box. “Stop touchin’ her!”
“What you say, boy?” David turned to look up at Ulysses.
Theodore hurried between the two men. Earl was halfway to the front steps. The last thing he wanted was for the crazy father to return and exacerbate the situation. “Ule, calm down. Caroline wouldn’t want you acting like this.”
“She would-a wanted me to protect her, to stop him from touchin’ her!”
“Ule!” Theodore summoned more authority in his voice. He grabbed Ulysses’ arm, but even his long fingers couldn’t reach around the bulk. “Now, wait a minute, Ule—” He began to yell, this time wrapping both of his arms around Ulysses’ and trying to hang on like a boy swinging on a tree limb. But the raging bull of a man shrugged Theodore off, knocking him to the ground.
“What you gon’ do, boy?” David asked. His gray eyes twinkled as he smiled. A lone tear cut a path down his dusty cheek. “You mad ‘cause your wife dead?” He strolled closer to Ulysses, not even considering he was at a physical disadvantage. “She was more mine than yours, anyway.” David snorted and turned his attention back to the box.
Theodore watched in horror as Ulysses buried the axe in David’s head like he was slicing open a watermelon. He blinked just in time to stop the spray of blood from splattering into his eyes. The corpse wavered upright for a minute, and then fell face forward to the ground with a thud. Theodore jumped to his feet before the river of blood reached him. Too late, Theodore regretted yelling Ulysses’ name. He saw Earl hobbling to his son as fast as his massive body would let him. His curses drew the other men to the commotion.
Ulysses dropped the axe and fell to his knees. His eyes scanned the heavens. “Lawd, Lawd! Look-a what they made me do!”
Theodore knelt next to the big man. “Lord God, have mercy on your soul, Ulysses. Ask for His forgiveness!”
“I deserve whatever God gimme. My weakness done drove my wife into the ground and my baby girl away from me. I ain’t sorry for this; I can’t be.”
“Ule, don’t say that! He’ll forgive you. Just ask—” The frenzied arrival of Earl and the other men cut Theodore short.
“You dead now, boy!” Earl plopped to the ground then held the mutilated body of his only son against his stomach. “String him up, boys. String…him…up!”
Theodore wanted nothing more than to leave and not witness the inevitable. But Ulysses kept talking and pleading with him to stay, as if the sound of his voice would be enough to get him through the last few minutes of his life. Theodore looked on, weeping and praying as a noose was flung over a tree branch and then around Ulysses’ neck. He’d never seen a lynching before and thought he would be ill as Ulysses balanced atop a block of wood with his arms tied behind his back, and the noose tightening with each movement he made.
The condemned man grew quiet and held his head up. “You tell her, Pas’ Teddy. Tell her I stopped him. You tell her.”
“Remember the thief on the cross!” Theodore cried. “Repent and save your soul!”
Ulysses looked up at the bare branches of the tree and mouthed something to the sky. And with a kick to the block, the big man met his fate in silence with only the slightest twitches from his body.
“What he mean by ‘tell her’?” the overseer asked.
Theodore removed his hat and closed his eyes as he tried to erase the image of Ulysses’ corpse swinging from the tree. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Then he dragged himself back to the wagon.