Nicodemus

Tina Belcher

 

They rode as fast as the tired; sweating gasping horses they were on would allow them too.  They had been in the saddle for days with the posse never far behind.  They had some idea of the direction they were heading and it made both of them as uncomfortable as the posse behind them. 

 

Finally they pulled up and stopped by a small stream.  Hannibal Heyes took off his hat and ran his hand threw his hair.  It was sweaty in spite of the cold.  His partner and cousin jumped down from his saddle beside him.

 

“Heyes, I don’t like this.”  He looked around at the countryside.  The rolling hills and miles of brown prairie grass.  “Do you know where we are?  I don’t want to go there.”

 

“I know.”  Heyes sighed.  “But we may not have a choice.  They may force us across the boarder and….well as long as we don’t go to far south it will be okay.”  He tried to sound like he believed that himself.  But he didn’t.  They were in the southern Nebraska territory and way to close to the Kansas line.  The last place either one of them wanted to see again was Kansas.  Too many memories there and to many of them bad.

 

In the distance they saw the dust rising from the posse that was gaining on them again. 

 

“Damn!”  Kid mumbled.  “Don’t those guys ever get tired.

 

“Come on.” Heyes was back in the saddle and headed out. 

 

It wasn’t long before they crossed the line and were heading deeper into Kansas.  As soon as they realized it they exchanged glances, but neither of them knew what else to do about it at the moment.  Before they knew it they came to a little town. 

 

The town that loomed in the distance wasn’t very big, but it gave the promise of some relief from the saddles they had been glued to for days and hopefully some refuse from those that were chasing them.  They slowed the horses to a walk as they entered.  Soon they became aware that they were being watched closely as they rode in, closely and with suspicion.  Soon they found their road blocked by a group of men carrying shotgun.

 

“Whachew boys be wantin here?”

 

Kid and Heyes looked at one another as they realized they were the only two white faces on the street.

 

Heyes smiled at the men, “No need for the guns friend.  We are just passin threw.”

 

“Uh-huh.”  The man doing the talking didn’t sound convinced.  “Get down offin them horses.”

 

Slowly the boys began to dismount.  Apparently too slowly to satisfy the group of men. Two of them grabbed Heyes and pulled him off the horse before he had a change to reach the ground on his own.  “Easy, easy.”  Heyes cautioned, “No need to get rough.”

 

Kid spoke this time. “Honestly all we were lookin for was a chance to fill our canteens, maybe a hot meal and then we would be on our way.”

 

From behind them someone came riding in fast.  Without thinking both Kid and Heyes went for their guns and drew.  Mentally Heyes slapped himself on the head ‘damn! That was dumb.  No matter who that is riding in, that was dumb.’  He and Kid were grabbed from behind by the men again and their guns ripped from their hands.  This time the men didn’t release them as they had when they pulled them from the horses.  A boy not more than 15 jumped from the horse that had skidded to a stop a short distance away. 

 

“Pa, there’s a bunch of men riding fast right this way.  Looks like maybe…” the boy shrugged, “I don’t know a dozen or so.”

 

The leader of the group grabbed Heyes and spun him around as the others from the group continued to hold both he and Kid.  “Who you bringing to our town?  Klan?”

 

A look of horror crossed both Heyes and Kid’s faces.  And they both spoke at the same time, “No!”

 

Heyes continued, “No sir.  We would never do anything like that.  I’m afraid those men are after us.”

 

“After you?!”  The man repeated not sure that he believed him, “What they after you for?”

 

“Ahumm.”  Kid actually blushed, “That would be a posse sir.  They think we did something that we actually didn’t.   Mostly under his breath he added, ‘at least not this time.’

 

Heyes continued.  “The railroad hired them.  They seem to be under the impression that we robbed a payroll shipment from one of their trains.”

 

“Well did ya?”  The man asked sternly

 

Suddenly both Heyes and Kid felt like they were under the stern eye of Grandpa Curry, being questioned about some mischief they had gotten into as children.  In a strange way it felt warm and comforting.

 

They looked at one another and Kid shrugged that it was okay with him if Heyes answered the question.  So Heyes continued, “honestly sir.  We have done such things in the past, but for the last almost year we have been trying to go straight.  So no we did not rob this particular payroll.”  It shocked both he and Kid that the truth came out so easily.  Heyes wasn’t sure why he had told this people the truth, when he’d opened his mouth; it had just come out.

 

Somewhere from the back of the crowd someone called, “Why should we believe anything a white man has to say.”  Others in the crowd mumbled their agreement.

 

Heyes looked at the leader of the group, who was regarding him thoughtfully, “Sir we have no reason to lie to you.”

 

The rest of the crowd wasn’t convinced and began to mumble things about lynching and tar and feathers.  Both Heyes and Kid were getting nervous.  They realized that these people had no reason to believe them and every reason in the world to be afraid of them. Simply because they were white.  From far in the back of the crowd there came the squeak of a rocking chair and the sound a wise old voice.  “You bring them two fellers here sos I can get a good look at them.”

 

“Now Momma Charlene, there ain’t no reason for you to get involved in this here situation at all.  We can handle it just fine.”

 

“Zeke Tanner!  I told you to bring them boys here sos I can get a look at them.  Don’t you make me get off this here porch and walk over there. You do like you done been told and bring them her to me.”

 

With a weary sigh, “Yes Ma’am.”

 

Heyes and Kid were bragged across the street to the porch near one of the general stores on the main street of town, they were practically tossed at the feet of an old woman.  Both Heyes and Kid snatched the hats off their heads and greeted the old woman with polite nods.  Slowly she stood and took several steps closer so that she could get a good look at them.  She pointed at Kid; “You say something.”

 

Kid looked at Heyes who was just as puzzled at he was.  “What would you like me to say Ma’am?”

 

She frowned at him, “Where you from boy?”

 

Wyoming ma’am.”

 

“Was you borned there?”

 

“Ah no.”  Kid was a little uncomfortable now.  “We, my cousin here and I were born in Kansas.”

 

Lawrence to be exact.”  Heyes offered.

 

The woman eyed him, “Lawrence you say.”

 

“Yes ma’am.”  Heyes and Kid looked at each other again.  They were very confused.

 

“Your folks didn’t happen to have a farm just a few miles outside of town and yours lived near by.”

 

Heyes and Kid exchanged shocked looks, “Ahmmm yea they did.”

 

“Uhm.”  The old woman nodded her head.  She returned to her rocking chair and lowered herself into it and began to rock as she thought back. “Ifin I’m remembering correctly,” She pointed at kid, “Your momma had corn colored hair and blue eyes just like you have.  Your daddy was tall and dark.  Irish he was.  You could hear it in his words.”

 

Kid was totally taken aback.  “Yes ma’am.”

 

Then her gaze turned to Heyes. “Boy I can see your father in you.  Tall and dark just like you are, with a touch of the English in his words.  Your momma,” She stopped to think again, “Yes I remember now.  Your momma was his daddy’s sister and she had dark hair and blue eyes.”

 

“Yes ma’am.”  Heyes confirmed, “and she had a touch of an Irish accent just like his dad had.”

 

“And y’all had the orneriest granddaddy.” She laughed as she remembered.

 

Again the boys exchanged looks.  “Ma’am how do you know all of that?”  Kid asked.

 

By now the posse was close enough that they could hear the sounds of hoof pounding the ground.  “I’ll tell ya all about it later. Right now Zeke you and take these boys into this store here and hide them down in the root seller.  Somebody get them horses off the street and unsaddled.”

 

“But Ms. Charlene…”

 

“NOW ZEKE!” 

 

“Yes ma’am.”  He nodded the direction to the boys. “Lets go.”

 

“Now the rest of y’all when that band of folks gets into town here you convince them that these two boys, either moved on or were never here.”

 

“Now about we just tell them that we ran them off cause we knew they was trouble.”  Someone suggested.

“I don’t care how you do it.  Just make sure that their posse goes on about its business so that those two boys can get out of town safely.”

 

Heyes and Kid were practically dragged away and threw the general store.  They were unceremoniously thrown into the root cellar at the back of the store.  Getting up and dusting the dirt from them selves, Kid turned to Heyes.  “What the hell is goin on here?”

 

“I’m not sure.”  Heyes answered as he tried the door, “but there is something about that old woman that rings a bell.”  He turned and looked at his cousin.  “Does she to you?”

 

At first Kid shook his head no, but then he stood and looked at Heyes thoughtfully, “Ya know she kinda of does.  How is it she knows so much about our folks.

 

Heyes shrugged and shook his head as he spoke.  “I’m not sure.”  His eyes met Kids, “Unless it has to do with the railroad stop.”

 

Heyes didn’t need to elaborate what he meant by railroad stop.  Kid knew he was talking about the fact that their parent’s farms had been a stop on the Underground Railroad used to move runaway slaves North.  Kid stared off into space for a few minutes.  “I do seem to remember their being an older woman who stayed with us for a long time.”  He looked at Heyes. “You remember her.  She was waiting for her family to catch up.  They got separated or something like that.”

 

Heyes started to smile, “I remember her.  She and Grandpa Curry were quite a pair.  Always into some mischief and playing pranks on one another.  I seem you remember you mother sayin that they were as bad as we were.”

 

“Boy she could cook too.”  Kid smiled, “Remember those cakes she used to make on Sunday.  Big chocolate ones and pies.”

 

Heyes looked at him “figures you’d remember that.”  He turned thoughtful, “What was her name?”

 

Then from outside they heard the unmistakable sounds of men searching.  As they moved closer Heyes and Kid moved toward the back of the cellar.  Behind some storage bins they found a panel that could be moved and behind it was a hole that they could both fit into.  They hadn’t much more than pulled the panel closed when the root cellar door was ripped open and three men came in carrying torches and guns.  Behind them was the storeowner. 

 

“I already told you fools, there be nothin in here except supplies.”

 

“Appears he’s tellin the truth.”  The lead man turned to follow the others back out.  “Nothin in here except vegetables and supplies for the store.”

 

The boys could hear the sounds of the men as they moved away to the next building.  Slowly the climbed out of the hole they had been hiding in and cautiously moved toward the door and listened.  When they couldn’t hear anything, they decided to venture out and see what was going on.  Slowly they opened the door.  Seeing no one in the area they quietly left the root cellar and slowly moved threw the store toward the windows that faced the main street.  Down the street they could see the men as they moved from building to building searching.  Finally after what seemed like forever the posse was satisfied and mounted up and rode out of town still heading South.

 

“It’s alright now boys you can come on out the store.”  The old woman called to them.  As they approached her and she smiled at them, “You boys figured out how I know so much about you yet.”

 

They looked at one another and Heyes spoke first, “Well ma’am we think so.  But we aren’t sure.”

 

She laughed at them “I’d be surprised if you was sure.  Neither one of you was very big the last time I seen you.  Matter fact, ifin you,” She pointed at Heyes, “Didn’t sound so much like you daddy when ya talk, and both of ya look so much like your folks, I’m not sure I would have recognized you.”

 

“You spent a long time at the farm with us, didn’t you?” Kid asked.

 

She nodded, “Yes son I did. I was there for several months waiting for my family to catch up.  We got separated on the trail.  I was beginning to think that they had been caught when they finally did show up.”  She steadied the boys closely, “I tired so hard after the raid to find out what happened to you boys.  I heard that your folks had been lost, but no one seemed to know what happened to you boys.  Then I learned that you had been sent to that home for orphans.  I considered trying to get you to raise myself.  But I knew they wouldn’t allow no colored family to have you boys.  So I didn’t try. I didn’t see any point in breaking your hearts again by getting your hopes up for having a family again and I didn’t think I could stand bein told I couldn’t have you boys.”

 

Heyes and Kid looked at one another.  Finally Heyes asked, “Granny Butcher?”

 

She started to laugh as tears sparkled in her eyes.  “I knewd you would remember eventually.”  They both got up and hugged her hard.  “I’m sorry you boys are in the mess you are.”  She looked at them hard, “Is what you said about goin straight the truth?”

 

“Yes ma’am. “ Kid assured her, “We have been working hard for it for almost a year now.”

 

“Governor promised us that all we needed to do was stay out of trouble for a year and he would grant us unconditional amnesty.  It hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure.”  He looked at Kid, both of them very glad that they had told the truth. “But yes ma’am we sure have done it and we intend to keep at it.”

 

“Good! I’d seen them there wanted posters that had your names on them.  Bout broke my heart to think that you boys had come to no good.”  She looked at them with all the love that any grandmother could have for a grandchild, “You was such good little boys.  Both of ya was ornery as all get out, especially you Hannibal Heyes.  Always plannin some adventure or scheme.  You two used to drive your momma’s crazy with all those crazy plans and scheme’s you’d come up with.”  She slapped the arm of her rocker with her hand, “Now then.  You boys have got to be hungry.”  She looked at Kid, “Especially you Jedediah. If memory serves you never met a meal you didn’t like.”

 

Heyes started laughing, “He still hasn’t met one he didn’t like.”  Kid tried to look wounded, but ended up laughing anyway. 

 

They spent the rest of the night and most of the next day visiting with Ms. Butcher, before they and she decided that they should be on their way before the posse decided to give up and come back only to discover that they had been lied to and fooled. All three realized that it would be bad for everyone if that was to happen.  The last thing the boys wanted was to cause any more or more serious trouble for the folks of this little town.  At dusk the next evening, reluctantly they saddled up and rode out. 

 

“Heyes, what do you suppose would have happened to us the other day if our folks hadn’t been involved with the railroad way back when.”

 

“I think we would probably be on our way to prison about now.”

 

Kid looked back at the little town fading into the distance, “Think we will ever see her again.”

 

“I hope so Kid, I sure hope so.” 

 

 

 

 

History

 

In the year of 1877 the town of Nicodemus Kansas was founded by a group of freed slaves who had been convinced to move West from the oppression and bigotry of the re-construction post civil war south.  They were lured to Kansas by the memory of the Underground Railroad and abolitionist movement.  Along with those memories came promises of abundant land, water and lush vegetation.   And all for a mere $5.00. What the 300 black settlers found when they arrived was the opposite.  Tall prairie grasses, rocky hard ground, few trees and little water beyond the nearby Solomon River. Many returned to the South.  Those that stayed build a town that not only survived, but also grew and thrived.  By the mid-1880’s they had two newspapers, three general stores, at least three churches, a number of hotels, a school, a literary society, ice cream parlor, a bank, livery and a growing population.  Unfortunately when the railroad came threw it came to the South of the Solomon River and Nicodemus lay to the North of the river.  But the town continued to survive threw the determination of its people.  Though the population has shrunk to below 50 the town still surveys today and in 1996 was declared a National Historic Site and became a unit of the National Parks Department.

 

 

 

And on a personal note, Charlene Butcher is the name of my friend who for a long time was out cook here at work.  Affectionately known as “that crazy ole black woman”.  She retired about four years ago and died shortly after.