Good Lord Bird
Excerpted from Chapter I, “Meet the Lord,” in the novel Good Lord Bird
“I don’t know ’em exact,” Pa said. “But whatever verses you know, stranger, why, if it would please you to share them, I would be happy to hear ’em.”
“It would please me indeed, brother,” said the stranger. “Here’s one: Whosoever stoppeth his ear at the cry of the Lord, he also shall cry himself.”
“Hot goodness, that’s a winner!” Pa said, leaping into the air and clapping his boots together. “Tell me another.”
“The Lord puts forth his hand and touches all evil and kills it.”
“That warms my soul!” Pa said, leaping up and clapping his hands. “Gimme more!”
The old coot was rolling now. “Put a Christian in the presence of sin and he will spring at its throat!” he said.
“Free the slave from the tyranny of sin!” the old coot nearly shouted.
“And scatter the sinners as stubble so that the slave shall forever be free!”
Now, them two was setting dead center in Dutch Henry’s Tavern as they went at it, and there must’ve been ten people milling ’bout within five feet of them, traders, Mormons, Indians, whores—even the Old John Brown hisself—who could’a leaned over to Pa and whispered a word or two that would have saved his life, for the question of slavery had throwed Kansas Territory into war. Lawrence was sacked. The governor had fled. There weren’t no law to speak of. Every Yankee settler from Palmyra to Kansas City was getting his duff kicked from front to back by Missouri roughriders. But Pa didn’t know nothing ‘bout that. He had never been more than a mile from Dutch’s tavern. But nobody said a word. And Pa, being a lunatic for the Lord, hopped about, clicking his scissors and laughing. “Oh, the Holy Spirit’s a’comin’! The blood of Christ! Yes indeed. Scatter that stubble! Scatter it! I feel like I done met the Lawd!”
All around him, the tavern had quieted up.
And just then, Dutch Henry walked into the room.
Dutch Henry Sherman was a German feller, big in feature, standing six hands tall without his boots. He had hands the size of meat cleavers, lips the color of veal, and a rumbling voice. He owned me, Pa, my aunt and uncle, and several Indian squaws, which he used for privilege. It weren’t beyond old Dutch to use a white man in that manner, too, if he could buy his goods that way. Pa was Dutch’s very first slave, so Pa was privileged. He come and go as he pleased. But at noon every day, Dutch came in to collect his money, which Pa faithfully kept in a cigar box behind the barber’s chair. And as luck would have it, it was noon.
Dutch walked over, reached behind Pa’s barber chair to the cashbox, removed his money, and was about to turn away when he glanced at the old man setting in Pa’s barber chair and saw something he didn’t like.
“You look familiar,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Shubel Morgan,” the Old Man said.
“What you doing ‘round these parts?”
“Looking for work.”
Dutch paused a moment, peering at the Old Man. He smelled a rat. “I got some wood out back needs chopping,” he said. “I’ll give you fifty cents to chop wood half a day.”
“No, thanks,” the Old Man said.
“How about a dollar, then?” Dutch asked. “A dollar is a lot of money.”
“I can’t,” the Old Man grunted. “I’m waiting on the steamer to come down the Kaw.”
“That steamer don’t come for two weeks,” Dutch said.
The Old Man frowned. “I am setting here sharing the Holy Word with a brother Christian, if you don’t mind,” he said. “So why don’t you mind your marbles, friend, and saw your wood your own self, lest the Lord see you as a fat sow and laggard.”
Dutch carried a pepperbox in them days. Tight little gun. Got four barrels on it. Nasty close up. He kept it in his front pocket for easy pickings. Not in a holster. Right in his front pocket. He reached in that pocket and drawed it out, and held it, barrel down, all four barrels pointed to the floor, talking to that wrinkled Old Man with a gun in his hand now.
“Only a white-livered, tit-squeezing Yankee would talk like that,” he said. Several men got up and walked out. But the Old Man sat there, calm as an egg. “Sir,” he said to Dutch, “that’s an insult.”
Now, I ought to say right here that my sympathies was with Dutch. He weren’t a bad feller. Fact is, Dutch took good care of me, Pa, my aunt and uncle, and several Indian squaws, which he used for rootin’-tootin’ purpose. He had two younger brothers, William and Drury, and he kept them in chips, plus he sent money back to his maw in Germany, plus fed and clothed all the various squaws and assorted whores his brother William drug in from Mosquite Creek and thereabouts, which was considerable, for William weren’t worth a shit and made friends with everybody in Kansas Territory but his own wife and children. Not to mention Dutch had a stall barn, several cows and chickens, two mules, two horses, a slaughterhouse, and a tavern. Dutch had a lot on him. He didn’t sleep but two or three hours a night. Fact is, looking back, Dutch Henry was something like a slave himself.
He backed off the Old Man a step, still holding that pepperbox pointed to the floor, and said, “Get down off that chair.”
The barber’s chair was set on a wood pallet. The Old Man slowly stepped off it. Dutch turned to the bartender and said, “Hand me a Bible,” which the bartender done. Then he stepped up to the Old Man, holding the Bible in one hand and his pepperbox in the other.
“I’m gonna make you swear on this Bible that you is for slavery and the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “If you do that, you old bag, you can walk outta here none the worse. But if you’re a lying, blue-bellied Free Stater, I’mma bust you across the head so hard with this pistol, yellow’ll come out your ears. Place your hand on that,” he said.
Now, I was to see quite a bit of Old John Brown in the coming years. And he done some murderous, terrible things. But one thing the Old Man couldn’t do was fib—especially with his hand on the Bible. He was in a spot. He throwed his hand on the Bible and for the first time, looked downright tight.
“What’s your name?” Dutch said.
“I thought you said it was Shubel Morgan.”
“Isaac’s my middle name,” he said.
“How many names you got?”
“How many I need?”
The talk had stirred up an old drunk named Dirk, who was asleep at a corner table nearby. Dirk sat up, squinted across the room, and blurted, “Why, Dutch, that looks like Old John Brown there.”
When he said that, Dutch’s brothers, William and Drury, and a young feller named James Doyle—all three would draw their last breath in another day—got up from their table near the door and drawed their Colts on the Old Man, surrounding him.
“Is that true?” Dutch asked.
“Is what true?” the Old Man said.
“Is you Old Man Brown?”
“Did I say I was?”
“So you ain’t him,” Dutch said. He seemed relieved. “Who are you then?”
“I’m the child of my Maker.”
“You too old to be a child. You Old John Brown or not?”
“I’m whoever the Lord wants me to be.”
Dutch throwed the Bible down and pushed that pepperbox right on the Old Man’s neck and cocked it. “Stop shitting around, you God-damned potato-head! Old Man Brown. Is you him or not?”
Now, in all the years I knowed him, Old John Brown never got excitable, even in matters of death—his or the next man’s—unless the subject of the Lord come up. And seeing Dutch Henry fling that Bible to the floor and swearing the Lord’s name in vain, that done a number on him. The Old Man plain couldn’t stand it. His face got tight. Next when he spoke, he weren’t talking like an Irishman no more. He spoke in his real voice. High. Thin. Taut as gauge wire.
“You bite your tongue when you swear about our Maker,” he said coolly, “lest by the power of His Holy Grace, I be commanded to deliver redemption on His behalf. And then that pistol you holding there won’t be worth a cent. The Lord will life it out your hand.”
“Cut the jitter and tell me your name, God dammit.”
“Don’t swear God’s name again, sir.”
“Shit! I’ll swear his cock-dragging God-damn name whenever I God-damn well please! I’ll holler it up a dead hog’s ass and then shove it down your shit-eating Yank throat, ya God-damned nigger turned inside out!”
That roused the Old Man, and quick as you can tell it, he throwed off his barber’s bib and flashed the butt end of a Sharps rifle beneath his coat. He moved with the speed of a rattler, but Dutch already had his pistol barrel at the Old Man’s throat, and he didn’t have to do nothing but drop the hammer on it.
Which he did.
Now that pepperbox is a funny pistol. It ain’t dependable like a Colt or a regular repeater. It’s a powder cap gun. It needs to be dry, and all that sweating and swearing must’ve sprouted water on Dutch’s big hands, is the only way I can call it, for when Dutch pulled the go switch, the gun hollered “Kaw!” and misfired. One barrel exploded and peeled sideways. Dutch dropped it and fell to the floor, bellowing like a calf, his hand nearly blowed off.
The other three fellers holding their Colts on Old Brown had stepped back momentarily to keep their faces clear of the Old Man’s brains, which they expected to splatter across the room any minute, and now all three found themselves gaping at the hot end of a Sharps rifle, which the old fart coolly drawed out all the way.
“I told you the Lord would draw it out your hand,” he said, “for the King of Kings eliminates all pesters.” He stuck that Sharps in Dutch’s neck and drawed the hammer back all the way, then looked at them three other fellers and said, “Lay them pistols down on the floor or here goes.”
They done as he said, at which point he turned to the tavern, still holding his rifle, and hollered out, “I’m John Brown. Captain of the Pottawatomie Rifles. I come with the Lord’s blessing to free every colored man in this territory. Any man who stands against me will eat grape and powder.”
Well, there must’ve been half a dozen drummers bearing six-shooters standing ‘round that room, and nary a man reached for his heater, for the Old Man was cool as smoke and all business. He throwed his eyes about the room and said calmly, “Every Negro in here, those of you that’s hiding, come on out. You is now free. Follow me. Don’t be afraid, children.”
Well, there was several coloreds in that room, some on errands or tending to their masters, most of ‘em hiding under the tables, shaking and waiting for the blasting to start, and when he spoke them words, why, thy popped up and took off, every single one of ‘em. Out the door they went. You didn’t see nothing but the backs of their heads, hauling ass home.
The Old Man watched them scatter. “They is not yet saved to the Lord,” he grumbled. But he weren’t finished in the freeing business, for he wheeled around to Pa, who stood there, trembling in his boots, saying “Lawdy, Lawdy . . .”
This the Old Man took to be some kind of volunteering, for Pa had said “Lawd” and he’d said “Lord,” which I reckon was agreement enough. He clapped Pa on the back, pleased as punch.
“Friend,” he said, “you has made a wise choice. You and your tragic octoroon daughter here is blessed for accepting our blessed Redeemer’s purpose for you to live free and clear, and thus not spend the rest of your lives in this den of iniquity here with these sinning savages. You is now free. Walk out the back door while I hold my rifle on these heathens, and I will lead you to freedom in the name of the King of Zion!”
Now, I don’t know about Pa, but between all that mumbling about kings and heathens and Zions and so forth, and with him waving that Sharps rifle around, I somehow got stuck at the “daughter” section of that speech. True, I wore a potato sack like most colored boys did in them days, and my light skin and curly hair to boot made me the fun of several boys about town, though I evened things out with my fists against those that I could. But everybody in Dutch’s, even the Indians, knowed I was a boy. I weren’t even partial to girls at that age, being that I was raised in a tavern where most of the women smoked cigars, drunk gut sauce, and stunk to high heaven like men. But even those lowly types, who was so braced on joy juice they wouldn’t know a boll weevil from a cotton ball and couldn’t tell one colored from the other, knowed the different between me and a girl. I opened my mouth to correct the Old Man on that notion, but right then a wave of high-pitched whining seemed to cover the room, and I couldn’t holler past it. It was only after a few moments that I realized that all that bellowing and wailing was coming from my own throar, and I confess I lost my water.
Pa was panicked. He stood there shaking like a shuck of corn. “Massa, my Henry ain’t a—“
“We’ve no time to rationalize your thoughts of mental dependency, sir!” the Old Man snapped, cutting Pa off, still holding the rifle on the room. “We have to move. Courageous friend, I will take you and your Henrietta to safety.” See, my true name is Henry Shackleford. But the Old Man heard Pa say “Henry ain’t a,” and took it to be “Henrietta,” which is how the Old Man’s mind worked. Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or now. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man.
“But my s—“
“Courage, friend,” he said to Pa, “for we has a ram in the bush. Remember Joel first chapter, fourth verse: ‘That which the palmerworm hath left, hath the locust eaten. And that which the locust hath left, hath the cankerworm eaten. And that which the cankerworm hath left, hath the caterpillar eaten.’”
“What’s that mean?” Pa asked.
“You’ll be eaten alive if you stay here.”
“But my child here ain’t no gi—“
“Shush!” said the Old Man. “We can’t tarry. We can talk raising her to the Holy Word later.”
He grabbed my hand and, still holding that Sharps at the ready, backed toward the rear door. I heard horses charging down the back alley. When he got to the door, he released my hand for a moment to fling it open, and as he did, Pa charged him.
At the same time, Dutch lunged for one of the Colts laying on the floor, snatched it up, pointed the hot end at the Old Man, and fired.
The bullet missed the Old Man and struck the edge of the door, sending a sliver of wood about eight inches long out sideways. The sliver jutted out the side of the door like a knife, straight horizontal, about chest high—and Pa runned right into it. Right into his chest it went.
He staggered back, dropped to the floor, and blowed out his spark right there.
By now the clabbering of horses making their way down the alley at hot speed was on us, and the Old Man kicked the door open wide.
Dutch Henry, setting on the floor, hollered, “Nigger thief! You owe me twelve hundred dollars!”
“Charge it to the Lord, heathen,” the Old Man said. Then he picked me up with one hand, stepped into the alley, and we was gone.
From The Good Lord Bird by James McBride copyright © 2013 by James McBride. Used by permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.