This was one of my dadís first stories.† Iím not sure if Rena and Alfred and Jabo ever existed.† Though this story is told in the first person, the narrator seems to be someone about eight to ten years older than my dad.† Perhaps itís a story he heard from someone else.† He had a thousand stories about Muscogee and its people.† At any rate, I have included it here because it gives some insight into how the less fortunate Muscogee residents eked out a living after growing too old or being too simple to work at a steady job.
I must warn you though, while this story is not very polished, it is powerful and the characters will stay with you long after the story is over.
††††††††††† Angus Burns from Scotland arrived in the Carolinas in the last part of the eighteenth century.† After working out a seven year contract for his passage that was purchased from the ship owners by a wealthy planter who also was a tobacco and cotton merchant, Angus bought some land and did well.
††††††††††† He owned several slaves, one of them a young woman named Rena.† In the early eighteen hundreds he sold out and migrated down into Alabama and bought a cotton plantation.† Rena's duty was as assistant in the kitchen.† As such she was picking berries in the woods one summer day, was caught by a renegade Indian and had a son that she named Alfred, who was slightly retarded.† Colonel Burns was killed while serving the Confederacy, leaving a childless wealthy widow.† After the war was over and the slaves freed, each received an endowment from her.† Rena bought passage on the Georgia, Florida and Alabama railway company down to the sawmill town of Muscogee in northwest Florida on Perdido river the western boundary between Alabama and Florida and got a job as cook and maid for one of the mill operators, while Alfred swept yards and chopped wood for folks to help out.
††††††††††† She bought a parcel of land with a dilapidated shack on it.† The windows had wooden shutters but no glass, a dirt floor, a stick and mud chimney and fireplace.† With Alfred's help, she propped it up and moved in.† It was on the public road about half a mile east of the town.† Surrounded by a forest of black oaks, it was the only house for two miles. A large bubbling spring supplied an abundance of water so she took in washing for some of the mill hands.† They cut scrub oak poles and enclosed a vegetable garden and lived there for many years.
††††††††††† Alfred was small.† His high pitched voice, thin gray beard, and pinched mahogany face gave him an elf-like appearance.† He took short fast steps swinging his arms like he's in a big hurry.† If Rena was with him, she stayed a few paces behind.† She is reputed to be over a hundred years old now, small and thin, half blind, fingers gnarled with arthritis, but back straight as an arrow.† She always carried a long crooked stick for a staff.
††††††††††† One late summer afternoon Alfred and Rena came up the hill from the river, Alfred's little spotted brown and white feist dog trotting along ahead of him on three legs.† Alfred said he reckoned the reason he did that was because he kept his tail curled up so tight over his back that he just couldn't get both hind feet on the ground at the same time.† His tattered old straw hat pulled down to his eyes, sweat dripping off the ends of his long straight hair, he carried on his shoulder a slim crooked limb for a fishing pole with a piece of black sewing thread tied to one end, a speckled rooster feather for a float, a bent rusty nail tied just above a small fish hook for a sinker.† His faded blue long sleeve shirt buttoned at the collar was streaked with sweat. His bare feet were making little puffs of red dust rise with every step.† Rena was a few paces behind him, her big black bonnet covering her head and face.† In one hand she carried the fish bait can and the usual staff in the other.† Only her bare feet showed under her dirt streaked feed sack apron.† I came out the front gate and spoke to Alfred.† Giving me a toothless grin he pulled off his sun hat and stepped up from the road.† Alfred liked to talk.
††††††††††† "I see you been fishing, Alfred."
††††††††††† "Yas suh.† Been fishin.† Yas suh."
††††††††††† "How're they biting today?"
††††††††††† "Dey sho been biten good today, yas suh, bin bittin so good I had to get up on de hillside an hide behin a stump to bait my hook.† Yas suh dey sho been biten good today."
††††††††††† "How many did you catch Alfred?"
††††††††††† "Fo," he said holding up four little stiff dried-up stump knockers strung up on a gallberry branch.
††††††††††† Rena stood waiting, shifting from one foot to the other, finally said impatiently, "Come on Alfred we ain't got all day to stand around swapping talk we got to get home an clean dem fishes fo dey spoils.† An besides dat, it gonna be dark fo we get home now."
††††††††††† Alfred stepped down into the dusty road and bowed, donned his hat, gave me a toothless grin, waved and continued on up the hill. As they were passing Mrs. Pattersonís house her maid brought out a box for Rena.† Alfred took off his old straw hat and bowed several times to Mrs. Patterson who was standing on her front porch.
††††††††††† Some folks said Alfred was not so retarded but what he could get some kind of a job and take better care of Rena, but I knew he was doing a pretty good job at that.† When I carried stuff out there that Mom sent, I saw his vegetable garden hidden by the tall pole fence.† It was always planted; corn, potatoes, beans, and collards so tall they had to bend down to pick the leaves. Then Rena's pots of herbs and flowering plants.† Everything kept nice and green.† He fertilizes it all with goat pills Mr. Pierce gives him for cleaning out his barn.† There are a few weeds but he says they help keep the bugs away and fed his gophers.† There are gopher holes all over the place; he raises them to eat.
††††††††††† Then there's Jabo, one of the best possum and rabbit dogs in the country. Alfred says he will tree two, three possums down in the swamp behind his house any night, and catch a young rabbit any time he wants one.† Alfred also makes bird traps, sometimes he catches whole coveys of quail at one time, but he lets most of them loose in pairs so they can raise more, keeping only two or three.† And there's polk greens growing all over and, bamboo tips down in the swamps.
††††††††††† They eat most anything, even skunks, he buries them in the garden till the stink is gone and just before they stink from being buried too long digs them up and skins them.† He also cuts gallberry bushes and he and Rena make yard brooms and sell them for ten cents each and that keeps them in all the sugar, salt, and lard money they need.
††††††††††† The next winter I didn't see much of Alfred , me going to school and all, so just before Christmas I decided to go out to see them.† Mom fixed a nice plate of sweet potatoes and a couple of pork chops to take them.† The freezing wind was making my nose and ears numb and brought tears to my eyes.
††††††††††† As I neared their shanty I squinted to see what kind of smoke was coming from the chimney, at first there seemed to be none, then a slight wisp appeared. I rapped on the front gate but nobody came out.† I thought that was strange, not even a bark from Jabo.† I pushed it open, going on past the pots and cans, knocked on the door.† Still no answer.† I opened the door and peered in.
††††††††††† It was dark inside.† All the window shutters were closed.† The door opening was so low I had to stoop to get in.† A little fire burned in the fireplace.† Alfred was sitting on a wooden box leaning over it warming his hands.† The acrid smoke mixed with the stale scent of the room hung heavy in the air. Over in one corner Rena was lying on the corn shuck covered bed staring at the roof. Alfred had not heard me come in so I stomped my foot on the dirt floor, he turned slowly his face was distorted, tears were streaming down, dripping off his thin beard.† I spoke to him but he just stood there shaking his head.† I asked how Rena was.† Still no answer.† I looked back at her, she was still staring at the roof and her mouth was wide open then Alfred spoke.
††††††††††† "Mams been real bad off sick three, fo days now."
††††††††††† I went over and felt of her forehead, it was cold and dry.† Quickly drawing my hand back and pulling the feed sack covering over her face, I turned and said, "Alfred did you know your mama is dead?"
††††††††††† He shook his head and broke down sobbing again. "I did'n know what to do."
††††††††††† I went over and put my arms around his shoulders and held him until he quit sobbing, wondering what to do.† Then realized that he probably had not had anything to eat for several days insisted he eat the food mom had sent.
††††††††††† He sat on his box and carefully divided the food into two portions, then began to slowly eat tearing it into small pieces, for he had no teeth.† I stared out the door back while he was eating wondering what I should do. Knowing that Alfred nor Rena had any colored friends to turn to, and somebody had to bury Rena, and soon.
††††††††††† When he finished eating half the food I told him to get his shovel, we had to bury his mama.† While he was gone I decided one corner of the garden would be the best place for a grave.† The outhouse being in the west corner, left the east corner.† The ground was soft and we soon had it dug.† Back in the house I had a hard time getting Rena's arms down to her sides to wrap her in the feed sacks she used for cover.† I took her shoulders and Alfred took her feet.† When we got her to the grave I hated to just drop her in so told Alfred to put her feet just over the edge of the hole while I slid her in until she was standing, then jumped in and gently laid her down and scrambled back out† I was fixing to shovel the dirt in but Alfred caught my arm.
††††††††††† "Please, suh, would you mind holden on a minute."
††††††††††† I nodded, he went back in the house, returning with the plate with half the food he did not eat, a small mirror, a thimble, a broken comb and a piece of red ribbon. †He carefully placed them in the grave beside her, scrambled out and took the shovel out of my hand and began to fill the grave.
††††††††††† After it was finished and mounded up nicely Jabo came bounding out of the back door of the shack, stopped at Alfred's feet looking up at him wagging his tightly curled little tail.† I stooped and patted his head, then felt his stomach.
††††††††††† "My, my, you sho is bustin at de sides.† I bet you done caught you sef a young rabbit fo you breakfus."
††††††††††† Back in the house Jabo came to me wagging that little tail, I stroked his ears noting little tufts of rabbit fur at the corners of his mouth.† I sat on Rena's bed.† Alfred sat beside me.† He seemed to be relieved and had quit crying.† Not knowing what to say to him I just patted his shoulder and left without a word.
††††††††††† As I passed Mrs. Pattersonís house her maid was sweeping leaves so I told her about Rena, and before dark it was all over town.† The next day being Sunday several folks carrying plates of food passed going toward Alfred's place so I figured he was being cared for.
††††††††††† All the next week after school I spent carving a head board for Rena's grave on a wide board I found down near the planing mill.† It said: "Rena Burns died Dec. 3 1910.Ē† Come Saturday I took it and headed up the road to Alfred's.† It was still freezing.† I pulled my wool cap down over my ears.† My hands were getting numb, but I couldn't put them in my pockets and carry the headboard and the jar of collard greens I was taking to him, so I hurried along knowing he would have a good fire to warm by, but when I got close enough to see his chimney there was no smoke coming from it.† I wondered why.
††††††††††† Without knocking I pushed the door open and looked in, the back door was banging back and forth in the wind, I stooped and stepped in.† The room was nearly dark.† There was a rustling of the corn shucks over in Rena's bed.† In the dim light I made out the small form of Jabo, his tail was tucked down between his legs, something I had never seen before.† I spoke to him.† He slid off the bed and crawled on his belly to my feet, he was shivering from the cold.† Searching the room and then the garden and finding no trace of Alfred, I wrapped Jabo in an old coat that hung from a nail driven in the wall and sat down on the bed to think.† Alfred had no close friends so he wouldnít be visiting.† Jabo always went with him everywhere he went.† The house was left open, Jabo's happy spirit crushed, food on his box indicated he had been gone for some time.† Very mysterious indeed.† Not knowing just what to do I decided to place the headboard on Rena's grave and go home to think.† After trying to coax Jabo into following me and him refusing to budge I wrapped him up good in the old coat to carry him home with me.† He was still shivering.
††††††††††† I left without closing the house.† The weather had warmed some now.† The sun was shining.† My shadow told me it was near noon time.† Jabo had quit shivering and was snoring softly.† Dad was still at home on his lunch hour.† I told him about Alfred.† He was disturbed.† Said he would see about getting a search party organized.
††††††††††† About mid-afternoon the mill whistle blew and soon all the mill workers streamed up the hill and passed our house going out to look for Alfred.
††††††††††† I got permission to stay up late to see if there was any news, but they were all back by good dark and had not found a trace of him.† Jabo was still behind the kitchen stove peacefully lying on his stomach with his chin resting on his front paws.† Without moving, he looked up at me with sad eyes.† He was warm and comfortable, but refused to eat.
††††††††††† Early the next morning I went to the kitchen to see if he would eat anything.† He had pushed the door open and was gone.† After searching the yard I found a tunnel dug under the front gate.† His tracks led to the hard clay road and disappeared.† I have looked everywhere for them for a long time.† The shack is falling down and the weeds in Albertís garden are up to the top of the fence.† Next week I am leaving for France and the war.† If I get† back, and live to a ripe old age I will never forget Alfred, Rena, and Jabo.