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The Wild and the Free

A Short Story

Painting by: Bruce Ben Pope

“Run away with me, Betsey. We can start over somewhere new, away from my father and all his mischief.”

John Carter III was holding onto Betsey’s bloody blistered hands as she was trembling.

She had just had a lashing from Billy Boy, one of the plantation foreseers, for not walking as fast as he’d like after a long day in the fields.

John Carter III, went by Master John Trey to everyone, but Betsey just called him John in their private moments. He had the purest blue eyes and golden honey colored hair. He was muscular, but had a slim build. He was the smartest of his three other brothers and even though he was the second born, he’s the one who carried the family name. The story was that when he was born his father knew he’d be “the one,” for what though is what John Trey never asked.

It was at least a hundred degrees in Macon, Georgia, and the sun’s scorching rays didn’t make the open wounds on Betsey’s hands feel any better. She snatched away from John Trey and began to walk away, but he snatched her by the arm.

“Don’t you dare walk away from me!” John Trey yelled.

“Or what Master John Trey? Would you like to beat me also?” Betsey looked up at him and he quickly released his grip around her arm. Betsey was different, she spoke better than other slaves and John had taught her to read, but it was their secret. Her dark complexion looked so smooth, it never appeared to be dried out regardless of how many hours she spent in the sun, her short hair was always braided into two pigtails that barely touched her neck, and her eyes were almost black, but there was so much life within them. John Trey looked around to make sure no one was watching them, he leaned down to whisper in her ear.

“I would never do anything like that to you, you know that.”

She looked at him, folded her arms which made the wounds sting more and then looked away as if she was seeing something beyond the fields, he backed away and gave a few feet between them so nothing looked suspicious. He went into his pocket and tossed her some bandaging for her wounds.

“I won’t go, Master John Trey.”

Betsey spoke without breaking her gaze.

“Don’t call me that.”

“Fine, John. I won’t go.”

John Trey rolled his eyes, he had been accustomed to Betsey’s stubbornness for awhile now. They’d basically grown up together, just two different worlds inside of one plantation. They only recently started communicating when they were fifteen, now here they were four years later.

“Why not? You don’t want to be here forever.”

“Master will kill me if I’m caught.”

John Trey stepped in front of Betsey’s view and looked down at her until her eyes met his.

“Then he’d have to kill me, too.”

They both fell silent for a few minutes just looking past each other, but then Betsey broke the silence.

“There was a story my Momma told me before she died last Winter. It was about the caged bird who got let out, it always came back so the owner never worried. Well, one day on its freedom fly, this wild bird started flying with it. The owner heard the ruckus and got worried it would hurt his bird, so he grabbed his shotgun and fired one shot. A ball of feathers fell to the ground. When he walked over to see if his bird was okay, he realized he’d shot both of them dead. The point is the owner killed the one he wanted to, but he also killed the one he wanted to keep. Regardless of his hopes and wishes, he had two dead birds lying in front of him. It doesn’t matter which one he wanted to save. He took them both out. He’ll take us both out, John. So continue to fly free and I’ll continue to be wild.”

Betsey gently touched John’s hand with her’s and then walked away.

-----

John laid in bed that night, not being able to sleep. He opened his window to feel a breeze. He couldn’t stop thinking about the story Betsey told him. She wasn’t wild to him, but she also wasn’t free, he knew that and that’s what he was trying to change, if only she’d let him.

“Help!”

John Trey’s thoughts were interrupted by the cry. He recognized the voice anywhere. It was Betsey, he could've sworn it.

He threw on his pants and shoes then took off to where he presumed the sound had come from. He got outside and couldn't hear anything. It was almost as if there was never a scream. He stood there for a minute, but then started walking towards Betsey’s housing to make sure she was okay anyways. He got halfway and decided to turn around, he didn’t want his delusions to lead him to paranoia and end up suffocating her more. He loved her too much and didn't want to risk pushing her away. As soon as he reached the steps to enter back into his house, he heard the smashing of glass and cries. They were faint, but nearby. He turned around and began walking again to find them.

He found out the sound was coming from Billy Bob’s shack-house. He got onto the porch and was about to knock, but then he heard Billy Bob yelling at someone.

“Shut up, girl!”

John Trey went over to a window to look in, there he saw Billy Bob pinning down a woman, her face was turned away so John Trey couldn’t recognize who she was. Then Billy Bob slapped her and she turned her head to face the window. Her face was bloody and John Trey looked as if he had seen a ghost. It was Betsey. He busted through the door and Billy Bob got up ready to protest the intrusion, but John Trey didn’t give him time. He swung with all his might and Billy Bob fell to the ground in confusion. John Trey saw the fire iron in the corner and began hitting Billy Bob on his side with it.

“Don’t you ever touch her again!” John Trey yelled as he swung. He looked at Billy Bob and he was moaning from the pain. Betsey laid on the bed still shaken up.

“John Trey, what the hell is wrong with you? She’s just a stupid n*****!”

John Trey kicked Billy Bob straight in the mouth as soon as the words left his mouth.

The only sounds to be heard in the silent night were the screams of Billy Bob.

Suddenly John Trey heard a group footsteps coming, he dropped the iron. John Trey ran towards Betsey, she was staring at the blood, he kneeled down and touched her chin.

“Betsey, Baby. Focus on me, okay?”

She wasn’t looking at him, she couldn't, she was completely dazed and trembling. John Trey could hear the footsteps getting closer. He put his hands around both of her shoulders and gave her a quick, strong shake. She looked at him wide-eyed.

“You have to get out of here. Run to your housing and pretend you’ve been there the whole time. I’ll send for you or come and get you myself. We have to leave tonight!” He got up and went to greet whoever was at the door. He turned to look back and Betsey was still sitting on the bed.

“Now!” John Trey demanded.

Betsey looked at him for a moment, but then got up and ran out the back door.

“You’re going to send her to death bed,” Billy Bob muffled in a pool of his blood.

John Trey looked down at him and then at the door, he quickly reached down to dip his hands in Billy Bob’s blood and smeared it over his own face.

The group of men that busted in consisted of: John Trey’s father Big John, his brothers, and three other foreseers.

“What the hell happened here?” Big John asked.

“He tried to kill me.”

“What?” Big John questioned.

“He wants the plantation for himself, Pops. He’s trying to get us one by one. I—I just had to protect the family.”

“Are you sure son?”

“I swear.” John Trey reiterated. Everyone looked around at each other then at Big John.

“No, he’s lying!” Billy Bob tried to find the energy to yell.

“You, shut up, scum! Tried to kill my boy? My family? We’ll see about that! Take'em to the tree. Hang’em.”

“When?” One of the workers asked.

“Now!”

The three men quickly ran to the beaten-up Billy Bob and lifted him.

As they carried him out, the brothers followed, and John Trey’s father stayed.

“You okay son?” He firmly gripped John Trey’s shoulder to show affection.

“Yes sir.”

John Trey looked at his father and nodded for extra reassurance.

“Good.” He then turned away and walked out.

For twenty minutes as they were setting up, Billy Bob was telling Big John that Betsey was going to run with another slave tonight and to take heed that an innocent man died for his son’s lies. Big John looked at him as they put the loop around his neck and thought for a few seconds, which felt like forever to Billy Bob in that moment.

Big John then quickly gave a hand gesture and the workers pulled. He watched as one of his most trusted foreseer’s legs struggled and fought to find the ground, he looked him in his eyes until his body was motionless. He didn’t even shed a tear, it was always kin over anyone in Big John’s eyes, but that didn't mean it didn't cost him anything.

------

Later that night, after he cleaned up, John Trey ran to Betsey’s housing.

“Betsey!” He loudly whispered in the room of slaves. He heard a few grumbles and moans as he scanned the room, but then a head quickly popped up. Betsey quickly, but carefully stepped over her slave counterparts to hurry to John Trey.

“Are you okay? What happened?” She said as she hugged John tightly, he embraced her warmth.

“They hung Billy..”

“What?”

Betsey quickly pulled away from him and covered her mouth as tears began to form in her eyes.

“No, baby, no. Don’t cry. Okay? He wasn’t a good man. He deserved it.”

He pulled her back into him.

“Who are we to decide who’s good?” She mumbled through her weeps.

John Trey was puzzled by her question, but he just continued to hold her. He didn’t know what made a person good or bad. He thought he was good man, honorable even, but he just got another man sent to his death. He pulled away from Betsey to hold her hands, he kissed them.

“We’re just us, we’re ‘the good,’ and we’re right. Those who oppose are the bad.”

“We just killed a man John. How does that not make us ‘the bad’?”

“Bad decisions don’t make you a bad person.”

“Then Billy should still be alive...”

John Trey blankly stared at Betsey, her words haunted him. He knew it was wrong and he would reap what he sowed soon enough, but he didn’t have time to ponder through his thoughts and worry about God’s punishment for him right now. He had to keep Betsey safe.

“We’ve got to go.”

He grabbed Betsey’s hand and they ran.

They ran full speed for what felt like miles. They were free, they were wild, they were them.

They made it through the woods with only a few scratches and bruises to show for it.

Suddenly, John Trey heard a familiar sound. Betsey froze due to his reaction.

The dogs.

Big John had released the dogs after them. They were only a half mile from the muddy, swamp that they needed to cross.

John Trey could see the fiery torches through the trees a little further behind. He realized Betsey was still looking at him. He looked at her then looked back once more at the flames closing in. He grabbed her hand and they began to run again.

This time it was fear that drove their speed, the fear that they could be separated forever if this didn’t work out.

Exhausted and out of breath with aching muscles, they finally reached the swamp. It was pitch black outside still, but the sun had four or five hours before it would make an appearance. Betsey stood at the front of the dirt bank and just gazed at the murky, muddy water before her.

“You have to get in, the water will mask our scent.”

“I can’t, John.”

“Yes you can, you have to hold your breath as long as possible.”

“I can’t!”

“Yes, you can. Just grab my arm if you need more air.”

“John—”

“You have to, it’s now or never. I’ll be right behind you. I promise, but you have to go now.”

Betsey kissed him and then just looked into his eyes.

“Go,” he mouthed. She descended into the water.

He was right behind her, just as he promised. They took one last big gulp of air, he held her hand once they were fully underneath.

John Trey heard the searchers and the dogs barking at the water. He squeezed Betsey’s hand a little tighter to reassure her that it was fine.

“Damn runners, made it past the swamp.” One of the searchers said.

It sounded as if they were leaving.

Betsey grabbed John Trey’s arm and he put his lips to her’s to release his remaining air into her.

About two minutes had passed and Betsey was struggling to breathe again. She didn’t grab John Trey’s arm though, she knew he needed whatever air he had left. She managed to escape his grip on her hand and since he couldn't see under the water he couldn't figure out where to reach to grab for her. He just felt the water moving and he knew she was fleeing from it.

John Trey rose up as well and ran through the water with Betsey, that alone caused a loud commotion and he could hear the footsteps of the searchers and barks of the dogs heading back towards them. He looked like a slave, the mud was stuck to his skin and browned it. His hair appeared dark from the leaves and muck mixed.

They reached the bank on the other side and started to run, but Betsey stopped and turned around because she heard the cocking of a gun.

John Trey turned and dove in front Betsey because he knew a bullet was coming next.

Just as he dove, pow. The gun fired and hit him, Betsey grabbed her mid-way area with both hands as John Trey hit the ground.

“John Trey!” She screamed in agony.

“John!?” Big John questioned on the other side of the bank, he knocked down the searcher’s gun who had fired and ran into the water with a lit lantern as the other searchers followed behind. He got close enough to see the man’s body he had shot. Sure enough it was his son, mud-covered and bloody in the mid area. Tears filled his eyes for the first time in years and he just kept his distance as he repeated, “my boy.”

Betsey got down on her knees to look at John Trey, he was laying on his back. He didn’t expect to sow so early, but he managed to smile when he saw Betsey over him.

“See, only one bird.” John Trey said looking into her tear-filled, lifeless eyes.

Betsey shook her head and removed her hands from her mid-stomach area, due to the lantern’s glow, he could see that they were covered in blood. The bullet had went through him and managed to hit her, too. She smiled softly back at him.

“Three, three birds.”

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