A Virginia Ham by John Ritchie

Shivering in spite of the warm muggy air of this early August night Samuel Jackson crouches in the bushes and strains to see as far as he can. The lantern on the hitching post across from him casts a pool of light onto the dirt road, but it also affects his eyes so he closes them and concentrates on listening for the sounds of pursuit. All is quiet at the moment, but he is sure the men and dogs won't be far away.

Crossing the road Jackson pats the shoulder of the negress holding the lantern. The carved wooden hitching post is a telling symbol of the oppression he is trying to escape. Praying that the lantern is indeed an indication of a safe house for runaway slaves he slips through the rail fence and into the yard.

With the night sky already tinged with gold he wastes no time in getting round the back of the building and into the wood shed. Somewhere nearby a dog gruffs and Jackson cringes. 'Lord, have mercy.' he whispers and begins shifting logs to make a hiding place.

William Cooper stops by his wood shed door as he does every morning after milking. On a bent nail near the latch are a few threads as though someone has caught their shirt in passing. Cooper looks closer. The threads are tied to the nail. By his knee, Cooper's Coonhound bitch grumbles and whines.'Now don't you go sayin'nuthin', Cassandra. This is men's business.' Cooper strokes the dog's ears and she licks his hand.

Back in the house Cooper takes the logs from the wood box by the stove and replaces them with a pitcher of fresh milk and some sourdough biscuits. His wife, Martha, watches in silence. Then says. 'Best I go visit with Sarah Hackett, this morning, tell her we got a package for the railroad'. Cooper nods and carrying the wood box leaves the house again, Cassandra at his side.

Later that day the Reverend Thomas Hackett comes calling, a coffin in his buckboard. 'Bring out your dead, you sorry sinners', he yells as he rattles up to the front porch of the Cooper homestead.

Cooper, cleaning harness in the barn grins as he hears the familiar cry. Hackett has been shouting the same greeting for nigh on ten years now. Cooper knows the coffin will be resting uncovered on the bed of the wagon, the warped planks so weatherbeaten they are bleached silvergrey.

Hackett claims it is his own coffin ready for the day when the Lord will smite him down, but Cooper knows otherwise.

'Got me some of Martha's finest.' Hackett holds up a glass of lemonade in salute as Cooper comes round the corner of the verandah wiping the sweat from his eyes with a kerchief.

'Might just join you, Reverend.'

'Praise the Lord.' Hackett takes a long drink and then winces. 'Damn, boy, but that's the sourest lemonade in seven counties'.

The two men grin at one another. In his early sixties, and by local standards an 'old timer', Hackett uses the term 'boy' indiscriminately for any man younger than himself, be he fieldhand or town sheriff. Cooper knows it is all part of a carefully cultivated veneer of eccentricity which allows the kindest man alive to be a 'Hellfire and Damnation' preacher by day and a conductor on the Underground Railroad by night.

'What you got, son?'

'A fresh Virginia ham.'

'Hackett nods. 'Happy to take it off your hands. I got cousins up North who will be glad of it come Thanksgiving.'

'You'll find it laid up in the wood shed, Reverend, curing in milk and biscuits.'

Hearing their voices Martha Cooper steps out onto the verandah, raising a hand to shade her eyes against the low evening sun.

'You'll stay for supper, Reverend? I've got some fried chicken and corn needs eating up.

Both men stand and Hackett takes off his hat before bowing.

'Well, now Mrs. Cooper, that is mighty kind, but...

'You don't mind driving home after dark, do you?'

'Well no, Ma'am...

'And I fixed it up with Sarah when I called, if that's what's bothering you.'

Hackett grins. 'Then there is nuthin' left, but to accept your fine Christian hospitality, Mrs. Cooper.'

'I'll get you some more lemonade' says Martha Cooper stepping back into the house.

Martha's offer sets the men laughing. Listening to them in the woodshed, Jackson wonders what it's like to laugh as a free man.


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