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John Henry

by Sharman Ramsey

"Look, there.  In that tree, John Henry.  Bet I c'n git that squirrel from way back here."

Sonny lifted the rifle to his shoulder and took aim.  But just as he was about to pull back on the trigger, John Henry pushed the barrel skyward.  Sonny laughed.  "I was just teasin'.  I wadn't gonna pull the trigger."

"What you go and do that fo'  Ya know ah cn't stand shootin' these critters.  They so free and graceful...and innocent flittin' there from tree to tree.  It ain't right shootin' 'em iffen it ain't fer eatin'.  If it wadn't my ma's birthday and me knowin' how much she likes quail with grits n' gravy, ah'd heap rather see these birds there in the sky than lumped in this bag."

The two boys ambled on down the red clay country road.  Soon the air vibrated with their laughter and horseplay as they loped along.  The sun was high and the heat rose about them in a haze.  Dust clouds lifted as they padded on bare feet watching out for quail to add to the bag slung over John Henry's shoulder.

Sweat glistened on their bare chests.  Sonny's flushed and fair and john Henry's shining ebony.

John Henry's dad was one of the many colored tenants that lived on Sonny's grandfather's land.  John Henry's mama worked in the kitchen up at the big House and she had brought him with her to work evry morning.  He was supposed to stay out in the wash house back where the colored children were watched over by the older women doing the washing while the others went to the fields. 

Sonny's mama often went with his Dad on his sales trips and Sonny stayed so often with his Grandmother that the Big House was more his home than the house he lived in with his mother and daddy.  One day Sonny crawled down the high steps and toddled across the yard to play with all those children he had been watching wistfully from the exalted heights of the back porch of the Big House.  Tentatively, he approached the shiny black boy that was just his size who was investigating roly polies underneath the camellia bush.  They crawled back and forth underneath that bush for hours that day.  The camellia bush was a forest, then a fort, and then a truck.   Then it was time for John Henry to go with his Mama back to the cabin that was their home.  That night Sonny shrieked and screamed until his grandparents finally figured out he wanted John Henry.  They sent for the boy and the two cuddled up in the trundle bed that pulled out from the canon ball bed that was so high you had to climb steps to get in it.  Sonny with his thumb in his mouth and his fingers twirling through John Henry's thick curling hair, finally went to sleep.  From that time on, the two were nearly inseparable.

As they grew older, when Sonny stayed the night at the Big House, John Henry stayed over as well.  Sonny would climb the stairs to sleep in the cannon ball bed, while John Henry stretched his ever longer and lankier body out on the trundle bed that pulled out underneath.  After the lights had gone out and his grandfather, whom everyone called "The Doctor", had tucked him in, the boy would creep down to the trundle bed and there the two would whisper and talk until they fell asleep under his grandmother's handmade quilt, frightened at the ghost stories that seemed real with the croaks and groans that drifted through the drafty antebellum house.

It was this bond that was so evident today as they walked side by side, both dirt-stained and sweaty.  But one with jeans more worn and patched than the other.  They loped down the road toward the cool shadows at the bottom of the hill.  There the road became a wooden bridge crossing a wide creek banked with lush green foliage and moss laden trees.  Before they reached the bridge, the boys cut off onto a narrow trail down the bank of the river to a sandy beach hidden by the bushes.  Animals scurried from the boys crashing steps through the underbrush.  Birds startled from their branches fussed as they flew about from tree to tree.  Every now and then a fish broke the deceptive calm on the surface of the amber creek.

They climbed the bank to lie down in the shade of the pine thicket in the thick, cool grass.  With hands clasped behind their heads they gazed up through the moss and the limbs of the gnarled ancient trees to a sky of a pale washed out blue only a southern summer sky can have.  Clouds drifted by as lazy as the boys themselves. 

"Wish tomorrow would never come," Sonny sighed.  "They ain't nothin' could be any better'ns this."

"Ah wish ah was goin'," John Henry said with such pain in his voice that Sonny popped on his elbow to look into his friend's eyes.  He was surprised to see a tear drip down toward John Henry's ear as John Henry scrunched his up to stay the emotion.

"White boy.  You jest don' know how lucky you ah.  Tomorrow you git in that fine Buick yo' Grandaddy got and you ride up to Tuscaloosa and go to school.  You got a chance.  A chance to be somebody.  T'do what'cha want to do.  Me?  Tomorrow ah'm goin to the peanut fields with the rest of the hands." 

Sonny lay back.  It ought to be John Henry going off, not him.  John Henry had the healing hands.  It was he that took the injured animals they found in the oods and got Grandfather to show them how to set their broken limbs.  While they waited for Grandfather to finish with a patient, John Henry would stand there in the door of the colored waiting room respectfully watching the doctor at work.  John Henry would touch, with near reverence, those dark bottles of liquid that Grandfather mixed up for medicine for his patients. 

John Henry had studied from Sonny's books all the way through school.  The book he got down in the colored school were all falling apart and twenty-five years old--castoffs from the white school.

"Shot.  How come we got so serious all of a sudden?"  Sonny said as he jostled John Henry. 
John Henry's eyes opened, the pain pushed aside til some other time.  He flashed Sonny one of his electric grins. 

Then at the time, with a whoop, they bounded down the bank, stripping as they ran, each eager to be the first to jump in the swimming hole.  John Henry made it first.  Sonny tripped over his trousers and fell headlong down the bank.  When Sonny looked up, John Henry was already splashing through the shallows hollering back, "Hurry up, slowpoke!"

Sonny disentangled himself and ran, dived into the creek.  He was down and up in one joyous motion.  He looked around for John Henry.  He wasn't splashing in the shallows where John Henry usually stayed.  It must be a prank.  Soon Sonny knew he would feel his leg pulled or bitten under the murky water.  He looked expectantly around for the air bubbles that would warn him of John Henry's underwater sneak attack.  A laugh escaped him as he anticipated what was to come.

Sonny tensed and waited.  Then anxiously, he looked about him.  John Henry wasn't that good a swimmer.  He had never held his breath that long before.  Sonny dove under trying to search through the impenetrable shadows to see what John Henry was up to.  He came up and gasped for breath. 

How long since he had heard that playful call from his friend?  That was the last time he had seen John Henry.  How long ago?

Again he dived under, darting furiously this way and that. Where was he?  Sonny surfaced.  Frantically he called out for John Henry.  No reply.  His mind had grown numb.  His heart raced in his chest.  What to do?  Dive again.  Again and again he dove.  When he could dive no more, he staggered from the water and stood looking up and down the creek for any sign.  Any sign at all!

The bank was deserted.  No footprints but their own.  His clothes wee just where he had thrown them.  His heart were John Henry's.

He ran, pulling on his britches as he ran.  Falling once.  Picking himself up and running again.  Back up the road he ran, crying as he went, not enough breath, but running, running as fast as he could go.  When he got to the Big House, he was calling as loud as his faltering breath would let him.

The hands sitting on the back steps eating their dinner off the tin plates, called into the house for his Grandmother.  But John Henry's mama came to the back door first.  She saw Sonny running and knew.  "Where? she asked.

Soon behind her came Sonny's Grandmother as he breathlessly got out his story.  She told the hands to go with him.  John Henry's Mama was already headed down the road. 

She stood stoically on the bank as the men searched, her round face intent and anxious; the linen handkerchief his Grandmother had pressed into her hands a crumpled ball.  Not until they finally found John Henry Hour later did the tears begin to slide down her face.  Beside her sat her son's friend, sobbing sobbing.  She knelt beside him and cradled his hear rocking back and forth, crooning and keening with a primal agony, as a majestic fushia sunset silhouetted their sorrow.  The glow of the pale blue sky had passed away and in a burst of glorious color marked the end of the day.

There lay the bag with the quail.  Sonny slowly picked it up.  Tears wet his face as he looked into the bag at those beautiful creatures, no longer to strut through the pine needles nor dart and sing through the branches of the trees.  His heart ached.  He went to John Henry's Mama and held out the bag.  She took the bag and felt the dead weight of the lifeless birds and walked on, her eyes focused on the man ahead of her who carried her precious boy.

"These are yours.  John Henry got them for your birthday."  They both knew how much love that represented for John Henry to still the life of that which wanted to live to give a present to his mother. 

Sonny helped her to her feet and took her arm as they followed the shadow of her massive husband, called in from the fields, as he carried their son home.  The solemn procession traced again the tracks the boys had made so joyously hours before.  Someone started singing, low and mournful.  "Deep River.  My home is over Jordan..."  The song filtered back through the procession and others joined the singing. 

Something fluttered there beside the road.  The mother walked on, oblivious to all but the body of her son. 

Shoot.  Another bird with a broken wing.  Hope John Henry didn't hear...

And then he realized...John Henry was gone.  Sonny stopped.  In the dark he heard the muffled cheep, the weak fluttering  He knelt, picked up the injured bird, and cradled it gently in his hands, whispering as he had heard John Henry do.  Life that wanted to live as John Henry woulda said.  The tears turned to sobs until he checked himself.

Ain't no sense cryin' over a dumb bird.  Only John Henry did such as that. 

John Henry would'a made a mighty fine doctor.

Sonny stroked the struggling creature.  Couldn't just leave the critter.  Maybe...just maybe...he would set the wing.  Sonny sniffed hard nd struggled to get to his feet.  For some reason it was important that he see the bird soar up through the branches of the fly beyond the white puffy clouds and into the pale blue sky. 

Copyright 1996  These are my own working genealogy files that I share with you.  The errors are my own.  But, perhaps they will give you a starting point.  All original writing is copyrighted.  Webmaster

Copyright 1996  These are my own working genealogy files that I share with you.  The errors are my own.  But, perhaps they will give you a starting point.  All original writing is copyrighted.  Webmaster