“The Wallows” is a self-contained chapter from my historical novel Bass Reeves, about the once legendary though now obscure African-American deputy U.S. marshal who easily became the most successful lawman of the Old West (arresting over 3,000 felons and killing at least 14 in countless gun battles over a 30-year career without ever once being shot himself). This chapter is set in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, one year before he escaped slavery.
Master Reeves spurred his Morgan from the stable in an unseemly manner, kicking up dust all over Bass and his sorrel, Strawberry, which Master Reeves, the other Master Reeves, the father, most certainly would not have done. Bass waited for the air to clear, then followed, loaded with the provisions and supplies, everything but the knives and rifles and ammunition. The sorrel was taller than the Morgan by three hands and made longer strides, despite the added weight, so every so often Master Reeves had to jog ahead a bit to stay out of the way.
Every so often, too, not upon every crossroads but upon some, Master Reeves would turn back in his saddle to see which direction Bass would point him in, whether this way or yonder way. It would’ve been a whole lot easier, it seemed to Bass, if Master Reeves simply let him lead from the front. And when Master Reeves spoke, Bass could hear him better. Sometimes Bass said, “Yes, sir, Master,” without a clue why.
Not long after dawn three white men appeared on horseback, creeping down a slope in their direction so slowly it was as if they were sitting on limbs of distant trees and not horses, as if the horses hauled a wagon each, but nothing of the such followed. One of them, the smallest but with the biggest hat and wearing a vest, asked Master Reeves where he was headed, where he was from—the questions of patrollers, not slave traders, and a posse would have shown a badge. They eyed Bass but didn’t speak to him.
The padded sounds of breathing and feet tamping in the shadows behind the horses drew Bass’s attention—a Negro man with shaggy gray hair, stooped and bloodied in tattered clothes, swayed on legs paled with mud. A rope bound the old man’s arms to his chest and his chest to the saddle horn in the hands of the smallest man who did the talking, fifteen or so feet away.
It wasn’t his business to injure the old man’s pride any further, being caught, a runaway with a bounty, but Bass allowed his eyes to trail back to the old man, and he caught sight of him looking at his looking. Bass blinked, trying to make out his face, if the old man was someone he might know. He blinked again, and how the old man’s eyes continued to shimmer in the scant light with prolonged helplessness, as if he were just too tired to blink or simply saw no point to it, was all too familiar. Flies lit on the old man’s shoulders and lips, lit and unlit, a constant flourish.
Bass averted his eyes straight ahead, at the hindquarters of the Morgan, and prayed the old man’s master wouldn’t abuse him any further simply because he was old and torn and broke-looking from being dragged for miles.
“So how can I help you, gentlemen?” Master Reeves said with a bluster, and Bass realized then he hadn’t been paying close enough attention.
The smallest patroller, the talker, curled forward almost into a ball and squinted. “You ain’t one of them Kansas jayhawkers, is you?” His company laughed but the talker remained quiet and still and rounded over. “You got papers on yourn?”
Master Reeves snickered, and the two patrollers laughed again. “I don’t blame you for being suspicious,” said Master Reeves. “It’s the best of times, indeed, because you and I still wield the power of repression, don’t we? The only lasting philosophy, regardless of what the world desires or what Dickens himself desires to behold as true, let’s face it. But it is, yes, the worst of times, you bet, men. So, please, allow me to dip in here,” he said, moving cautiously to unbuckle a saddle bag, “and show you a few papers about my identity. Fuck the big nigger’s identity. Let’s talk about mine, gentlemen.”
Bass slipped his shoes from the stirrups in case he should need to drop down any moment and high-tail it for cover, but shoulders up he didn’t budge. Didn’t need to to plainly see that Master Reeves had produced a roll of papers, but instead of handing it over, he clutched it like a torch. The patrollers twitched, maybe to touch their guns, but not to raise or cock them yet.
“I’m George Robertson Reeves, a member of the Texas House of Representatives, Grayson County, and son of William Steele Reeves, retired member of not only the Tennessee House of Representatives but also, more recently, more pertinent to you, at least should be, the Arkansas House of Representatives, Crawford County, and that man operates a little plantation down the road in Van Buren. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It ain’t too damn far from here if you know your way around. So go there if you wish to be the Good Samaritan. Inquire from the actual source if Mr. William Steele Reeves himself considers his slave, Bass Reeves, to be a fugitive—you know, the one he has given on loan to his son and is actually, lo and behold, accompanied by his very son even as we speak and dispute. Or you can press your luck right now, gentlemen, if you so choose to delay me up any further on my righteous action of taking said slave on a goddamn hunting expedition. This is a free country still, is it not?”
The main patroller stiffened in his saddle as if both to draw away from Master Reeves and make himself appear taller. “Free so long as we out here doing our part,” he said. “Just see to it you keep hitched what should be, hear?” He tipped backward, with his feet raised, like a boy in a swing, then drove his heels down fast to spur his horse.
The other two patrollers laughed with anticipation, twisting in their saddles to watch what their small friend was temporarily leaving behind. The rope whipped the air in the quick motion of hummingbirds, and then Bass saw nothing else of the old man than this—just him taking flight, with his pale muddied legs and the pale soles of his feet sailing and dissolving into the dust cloud of the horse, further hidden now by the two patrollers galloping to catch up.
Later in the morning, hunters also passed them by on the road. They spoke to Master Reeves but did not stop. And a stench of death trailed behind the muddied wagons piled with deer, hog, beaver, and bear like a long rope, thought Bass, that dragged the ground.
Bass would’ve chosen to work for Master Reeves, the other Master Reeves, all his life over anybody else in this world. He’d finally allowed himself to think that all the way through. And if freed, he would’ve chosen to live close to the plantation, to see his family but also to still see Master Reeves come and go and even shoot with him if he wanted. But to be given away like a word to somebody, like a peach, on loan or not—what was the difference? Eventually, every time, whether heated up mad or sad, he had to change the subject to no subject at all—to the Morgan’s shorter, softer stride. A constant catching up, and then a falling behind again, over and over. Just that. Or the sun blooming off the Boston Mountains like an oxeye daisy, if God could be a daisy and why couldn’t He? God saying to Bass in His flower speak, Don’t forget I don’t forget.
Petals fell into the tree cover, and then they were there under it, Master Reeves and then Bass, at the brow of the White River, sparkling like ice. Where Bass had always come to pitch camp with Master Reeves—the other Master Reeves. The best camp site to sit high enough above spring floods, yet near enough to them, the best hunting grounds for you name it.
It’d be easier not to believe in God, believed Bass. Not to believe in God, he could pull Master Reeves off his saddle right here right now right quick and kick up and slap all kinds of devil dust in his face as he called him who he really was, Master George among other things, before strangling him and weighting him down in the river with easy-as-you-please stones, before blazing his way northward for Kansas, shooting dead every white man who crossed eyes at him. Would be a whole lot easier than this. This fear in place of nothing. But wouldn’t his mama and auntie and grandma and grandpa Sugar be proud of him for the magic of keeping his fear buried deep and safe inside him like a tater?
At the bank in a lacy patch of white pussy-toes, Master Reeves dismounted and stretched himself as the Morgan, blowing, almost purring at the tiny, fuzzy-headed blooms, nosed closer to the river for a drink. Bass walked Strawberry close but not too close to Master Reeves, a little off into a tighter spot between tupelos and dismounted.
“Boy, what you up to?” asked Master Reeves.
Bass whipped his head in his direction, wondering what he could’ve done wrong. “Master?”
“Are you so fatigued by your own laziness that you think I’ll stand by and let you nominate yourself master over me?”
“No, sir, Master Reeves, I ain’t tired,” said Bass. “Not atall.”
Master Reeves took off his hat and wiped a kerchief across his forehead as he trod toward Bass, his boots sinking in softness.
“Then why are you planting yourself upriver of me?”
“This my usual place, sir.”
“Your usual place, is it? My father let you go north of him?”
“Well, yes, sir, here he did.”
Master Reeves smiled and balled the kerchief in his fist. “The chick that’s in him pecks the shell.”
“Moby-Dick. You hadn’t read it yet?” He stared at Bass, then started to say more but paused with his jaw lowered, which made his mustache stand out darker and thicker and sharper, the ends angled down, and together with the strip of hair growing from his bottom lip past his chin, Master Reeves appeared to have a spearhead mounted on his face. The tip of it pointing to his nose, as if to say he smelled the musk of everything, that he belonged to this forest. And then it vanished as he spoke: “Nigger, you know what I’m asking you. Don’t play dumb with me.”
Bass feared maybe he was dumb. He believed if he said what was on his mind he’d be answering a totally different question.
“Are you declaring allegiance to the North by going upstream of me?”
“Oh, no, sir, Master,” said Bass. “I just don’t cotton to no spot so thick with stick.” Bass pointed to the pussy-toes. “Like stepping on spider webs.”
Master Reeves grinned. “Bass, are you scared of spiders? A big nigger like you?”
“No, sir, ain’t scared of no spiders. Just don’t cotton to no stick.”
“I reckon you don’t cotton to cotton then.”
“No, sir, don’t much cotton to no cotton.”
“A lot of work, cotton,” said Master Reeves.
“Don’t mind work, Master,” said Bass.
“Don’t mind work, huh? Then why are you lollygagging along, boy? Move your black ass downstream of me this very damn instant.”
“Master Reeves,” said Bass, rapidly nodding his head the way he’d gotten in the habit of doing when the circuit preacher came out to the plantation and gave a Sunday service in the quarters. Bass would stand in the back, along a wall, and listen with his eyes closed, nodding to the rhythm of what he heard. But that was all in the past now. Now, his eyes were open and aimed at those pussy-toes up under Master Reeves’ boots.
“Don’t be begging me. Are you having a conniption? You want the whip?”
“Master Reeves,” Bass repeated, not meaning to.
Master Reeves laughed but wasn’t happy. “I may have to give you back. You think that’s what you want, but it ain’t what you want, boy, I promise you. You won’t go back pretty.”
“Master Reeves, sir,” said Bass, still nodding, praying God smelled his fear and felt it knotted up in his belly the way Bass felt it. He watched Master Reeves tuck his kerchief back in his pocket and set his hat back on his head. He watched him then open his coat, as if he might have a whip tucked into his pants, but he didn’t have anything of the kind, like he was showing Bass he had nothing, that there was nothing to fear, nigger, so go ahead, like Master Reeves finally smelled his fear, too, and was saying nothing to give him room to talk, as if he was waiting, praying too this would end, that they could go on back to the peaceful world of earlier. So Bass nudged himself to go on and step up to the words, to go on and speak. “I think, sir,” he finally heard himself saying, “I think I recall Master Reeves, the other Master Reeves, your daddy, sir—”
“Get on with it, for heaven’s sake!”
“I think I remember him saying it flow backwards, the White River, sir. Towards north way, like the Nile do, like they was maybe the only two.”
“Like the Nile?” Master Reeves turned to the clear open space of the river and strode closer to it.
Bass began to wonder what Master Reeves could have been thinking or seeing or even smelling after standing there for so long at the edge, his back to Bass, staring off at the wide road of silver water sliding slowly up.
It’s some world when a nigger ain’t as free as a ant or a frog or a butterfly, who can all find their way north to the tupelos to get away from the stick of pussy-toes without having to explain why or risk being whipped or dragged or sold or given away or killed. That was what Bass wished Master Reeves was thinking or seeing or smelling.
“Yep,” said Master Reeves, turning to face Bass with a face surprisingly at ease, more like his father’s than his own, “that’s a beautiful river. I’ve been away for too long. Let’s enjoy this respite, Bass. My father is a wise man. Let’s learn to trust each other, you and me, and have a high time on the fat of this land. Then when we get to Texas, you need not ever say ‘I think’ this and ‘I think’ that in front of the other slaves, or I will splay you open like a clam. Oh, you’ll be bleeding like a pig, but you’ll look like a fucking clam. If you have thoughts, I recommend you pretend you don’t.”
“Yes, sir, Master,” said Bass, suddenly flushed with exhaustion. He told himself to get used to this crazy man. He was crazy and always would be.
“You see,” said Master Reeves, “my slaves know about Ralph Waldo Emerson. You don’t know about Ralph Waldo Emerson, do you, Bass?”
Bass shook his head and lowered his eyes as Master Reeves inched his way from the river.
“A Massachusetts preacher and philosopher, Bass. An abolitionist. You know what an abolitionist is, don’t you, Bass?”
“‘So far as a man thinks, he is free.’ That’s what he says. Let that sink in. ‘So far as a man thinks, he is free.’ So just by thinking, Bass, you make yourself free. Now, I can’t keep you from thinking, not completely, but I can damn sure slow it down, and if you go around bragging about it, I’ll have to take issue with you, understand?”
“Understand, Master,” said Bass.
“And you know what else Emerson says?”
“No, sir. Something about ice?”
“Ice? What the fuck?”
“Master Reeves, the other Master Reeves, your daddy, he buys his ice, he told me, from Master Chuchess.”
Master Reeves looked away and bared teeth as he lifted his top lip. “No, you’ll like this better than anything about ice because it’s about you, boy, about all slaves. He’s an abolitionist, remember, so it’s important what Emerson says, and he says, ‘Nothing is more disgusting than the crowing about liberty by slaves, as most men are.’” He reached out and patted Bass on the arm, but hardly a hand, hardly any strength behind it, not the strength of God that Bass had behind his own, and something like that, which made no sense, could startle him. “Most men are slaves because they have no thoughts, are helpless, which is why we thinking men put y’all to work,” said Master Reeves. “Well, you aren’t helpless or thoughtless, or you’d be working a field, so that makes you freer than a lot of white men who work fields. That’s part of what he’s saying. The other part is he wants you to stop crowing, boy. You don’t need the North, and they’re tired of you believing you need them. Which means they’re tired of helping, too. You want liberty, or more liberty than what you have, then think more.” He raised his hand up to Bass’s head and with a fingertip drummed his temple, making Bass blink. “Use your damn head more. This thing,” he said, repeatedly drumming. “But by God, Bass, you better keep that shit to yourself. You do that and I’ll let you be free. My gift to you.”
“Why, thank you, Master,” said Bass. “Thank you, sir. Thank you, thank you, sir.” His palms drained sweat to hear himself pronouncing every syllable Sugar-sweet, precisely how his grandfather had taught him and how Bass had never wanted to sound, and, like magic, Master Reeves at last, satisfied, stopped drumming Bass’s temple and stepped away.
Bass leaned back against Strawberry’s flank to catch his breath before unloading the supplies to make camp and watched Master Reeves tramp back through the pussy-toes. The sorrel twitched so Bass twitched with him, and he began to think on that, how one thing can start another thing into doing the same thing and taking no thought at all, how that wasn’t freedom. But what was it?
* * *
By late morning camp was made, including a fire Bass had built from dead tree limbs and old bird nests he’d climbed up and found in the pin oaks just upstream of the tupelos. Master Reeves sat nearby on the bank, his back against a rock, with his boots and socks off, smoking a pipe and reading a red leather-bound book no bigger wide than his hands. Sometimes he looked up from the book as if to watch his pipe smoke vanish over the water, and sometimes he read aloud, as if intending Bass to mull over those words with him. Those beautiful sounds strung together to form inexplicable thoughts—“Smote the mighty Mishe-Mokwa,” “Lest from out the jaws of Nahma,” “Minnehaha, Laughing Water.”
Master Reeves, the other Master Reeves, had read passages to him from the Bible and had always kindly explained whatever he’d read, but only the Bible. Nothing by someone once alive who walked the earth like anybody else. It made Bass reconsider this Master Reeves’s gift of permission. This Master Reeves might explain a thing but usually he wouldn’t. He preferred to let thoughts bang against Bass’s head like birds blind to window glass, which could very well be the best way and worst way both to look at freedom.
Once the flames had latched onto the wood and could be trusted to seethe into coals for a later roast, Bass led Master Reeves downstream to the wallows. Like on the road, Master Reeves insisted on following in front with the rifles and knives and being humbly told with a grunt or hand motion to turn at the trees rubbed hog-high nearly barkless and smeared with mud, to squeeze there into that thicket and follow the hog path underneath that way.
Before crawling out of the thicket, Master Reeves leaned in and whispered pipe breath into Bass’s face. “How close are we?”
“Close, Master.” He guessed his was just plain nigger breath.
Master Reeves pinched his eyes tight like the tight spot they were in. “Don’t you dare shoot if I’m in front of you.”
“Oh, no, Master.”
“Don’t shoot scared. Shoot smart.”
“Yes, Master.” He nodded and looked lower down, at the cloven hoof prints in the mud.
“I can’t get through there with both hands full.”
“No, sir, not good to.”
Master Reeves cradled the rifles in the crook of an arm while he reached inside his jacket and untied the buckskin straps to one of the knife sheaths hanging at his hips. Once Bass had knotted the belt around his own waist, Master Reeves gave him the older of the two Sharps breech-loaders, along with a handful of spare cartridges and tape primer from his jacket pocket, then pulled Bass in by the shoulder to speak directly into his ear. “Father says you’re quite the crack shot, but till I see with my own eyes you can shoot straight, you going first.”
Bass nodded, and when Master Reeves let go of his shoulder, Bass dropped to his knees and elbows and held still for a moment, listening. The hogs may have been close but not close enough to be heard above the twittering and fluttering of finches scattering all about, so he stretched to put the rifle through, then crawled out of the thicket looking for sorrel-brown humps. There were more tree trunks rubbed down with mud but no razorbacks in sight. The path sloped to lower, wetter ground, and though the nearest wallow appeared empty, there were other wallows beyond farther thickets. He hoped their talk hadn’t alerted the hogs to hide.
Bass waited and helped Master Reeves to his feet before striking out with his rifle raised. He crept to the first wallow from its grassier side, away from its slide of entry, in case a boar sat too deep to be seen and charged out. A veil of mosquitoes hung over it, smelling of fresh shit and buzzing with flies. But there was no hog, not here, not yet.
He continued following the hog path around a meadow completely rooted up as if turned over by man, mule, and plow. He pointed it out for Master Reeves to observe and figure on his own what it could possibly mean, then hearing snorting ahead Bass stopped quick and directed his attention toward the wallows coming up around the next thicket. It was the range of sound that stopped him, from low to high, long to short. Like the finches, an impossible number. With the other Master Reeves, the most they’d ever found at one time was four or five. He motioned ahead, and this Master Reeves nodded—his eyes round and intense.
Bass moved on but slower, nearing the thicket of crabapple trees, which had stopped blooming over the years and had become thickly latticed with honeysuckle vine. It made a good stand from which to shoot the hogs at the wallows, but was much denser and sweeter than he ever recalled. Reminding him that he missed his mother, remembering her how his father must have, since for his return on holidays she plaited verbena in her hair or wore gardenia or rosebud necklaces.
He tried to peek through the vine to make sure a razorback wasn’t inside but couldn’t find a break, so he skirted the edge until the wallows came into view, with a dozen or more razorbacks lounging and snorting in the mud holes or sunning beside them in fat rows. A half-dozen more rooted in the meadow penned between two creeks, while a striped litter played. Like a plantation of them.
Master Reeves stepped past Bass and leveled his carbine toward the wallows. Bass prayed Master Reeves knew better than to shoot one actually in a wallow. He watched Master Reeves line up the sight and then shift his aim, as if he couldn’t decide which hog suited him best, until finally he appeared to settle on one and eased his hammer back until it clicked into place.
As if in response to that click, from the thicket behind them, a growl rose so low and deep and sustained, it vibrated the ground, that first, before the air and the hair bristling up Bass’s neck.
“Watch it,” said Bass, turning his rifle on the thicket and drawing his hammer back.
“What is it?” said Master Reeves. “What’s in there?”
The ground vibrated again, but this time for distant reasons—the hogs fleeing the wallows for wooded underbrush and the meadow for the creeks and squealing and thrashing as if they’d all been gutted and were dying. Then the dog or bear inside the thicket growled again, somehow even louder and wetter than before.
“See if you can’t see what it is,” said Master Reeves.
Bass didn’t want to move. It made sense he was safer not moving.
Bass reached for the knife at his waist and slid it from its sheath. He’d never hunted with a weapon in each hand, but it made sense. He leaned closer to the honeysuckle without moving his feet, but he wasn’t close enough to see through the vines and leaves and blossoms. Reluctantly, he stepped closer. Nothing rustled, nothing growled, so he craned his neck and touched his nose to the blossoms, but could still see nothing. He stepped aside to try another spot, and though he couldn’t see a razorback inside the thicket, he knew now that was what it was, popping its teeth.
“My God, Bass, is that a damn woodpecker?”
The popping stopped. And then in a hot breath, a razorback burst through the honeysuckle bigger than three of Bass, the size of a bull, charging and blowing and swinging its long head at Bass to catch him with its cutters. Bass leaped back and jabbed the knife into its neck, and Master Reeves cracked a shot at it.
Bass sat up and watched the hog over-run them, raging away and bucking with the knife still stuck in its neck and shot who knows where. Master Reeves was on his feet and scrambling to reload his smoking rifle. And then the hog turned in a spin of dust, popping its teeth and snorting and recharging.
“Watch it, he coming back,” said Bass. He wheeled his rifle around, trying to fix an aim. The hog didn’t even have a snout on it, just teeth and jaws and slobber bubbling out where a nose should be and rocking its ugly head, rocking, ears to eyes, rocking, ears to eyes, and was almost now upon Master Reeves, struggling with his primer, when Bass fired.
Master Reeves hollered out Bass’s name and dropped his rifle as the hog plowed into him, knocking him flat on his back. The hog’s dead weight penned down his legs, with its motionless snoutless head settling on his stomach.
“You all right, Master?”
Master Reeves groaned and produced his knife and stabbed the hog in its neck and shoulders. “Bass! Bass!” he called, continuing to stab at it. “Help me get this fucking thing off me, Bass! Bass!”
“Yes, sir, Master. I’m coming.”
“I think you got him now,” he said, proud after all to have permission for the thoughts he was having. He walked over, and Master Reeves quit with the stabbing but pointlessly squirmed.
Bass admired the bloody entry mark of his cartridge, between the hog’s ear and eye. He leaned to pull out his knife but paused to scrutinize the hog’s gaping wound where a snout used to be, its skin blackened along the edges. He felt around its nose cavity, then looked at his fingertips. No blood at all. And he could see no puncture scars from bites, not in it or in the hair close by. As if the razorback had lost its nose to frostbite as a poor runt of a piglet so long, long ago.
“Bass,” Master Reeves struggled to say, getting bright red in the face.
“Yes, sir,” said Bass. “You got him good. A big one. Now, let me see if I can help you haul his carcass off of you.”
SIdney Thompson's collection of short stories, Sideshow, won Foreword Magazine’s Silver Award for the Best Short Story Collection of the Year. The stories previously appeared in such literary journals as the Southern Review and the Carolina Quarterly, while two were nominated for the Pushcart Prize and four have been reprinted in anthologies of short fiction. He received his MFA from the University of Arkansas, and is currently working on his PhD at the University of North Texas. Sidney has short fiction forthcoming in 2 Bridges Review, NANO Fiction, and the inaugural issue of Connu.