The Bridge of Hope

Copyright © 2016 by Rebecca Graf

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

From the Author

This was a hard story to write because I had to get into the minds of people who I abhorred. But it was the hope the young slave man had that helped me through it. This story is simply based off a ghost story where a slave had been hung at a covered bridge. It is said he still haunts the area. I wondered what made him run away and why did they hang him there. But most of all I wanted to know why was he still haunting the place. From those questions, this story of hope was born. While many can argue that our society is not where it should be, we cannot argue that it has come a long way. Maybe this story of hope will help others see the progress and the hope for even more.

and now on to the story….

Samuel fell on his knees. His side burned as though a hot iron had been shoved into it. Sweat trickled down his body and dripped onto the hot ground, mingling with the blood that betrayed his scent to the dogs. His breathing hurt as he eyed the road in front of him. In the distance, he heard a bark. Lost energy was found again. He pushed forward through the vegetation.

Feet pounded on the uneven ground. Dogs barked. They had found his scent. He pushed on. His hands gripped roots and young trees to pull his body over a small hill. Briars clawed at his skin and ripped pieces of what was left of his clothing. The day was warming up as the sun rose higher into the sky.

His heart felt heavy. What lay before him, he had no clue. He had never been beyond the edge of the county. Now he was trying to reach those points and beyond. There was no chance of success, but he had to try. He’d die trying.

It was a small root that was his undoing. His bare feet caught on it and sent him flying down a small hill toward a fast running creek. Over and over he fell. He stopped with his face buried in the mud next to the creek. Pain seared through his ankle and up his leg. Exhaustion and pain fogged his brain enough for him to have to take time to gather his wits. It was too much time.

Hands roughly jerked him to his feet. His footing slipped in the mud, but the angry hands held him up. The men crowded around him.

“Come on, nigger!”

Opening his eyes, Samuel met the twisted faces of his chasers. His heart sank. It was over. Freedom had been a dream after all. A dream he’d never get a taste of.

With rough hands that were determined to show him no mercy, the men dragged him forward. He heard several shouts behind him. Dogs barked ferociously. They roughly shoved and dragged him down the creek.

Samuel raised his head. They were taking him to the old covered bridge that bridged the Old Stonemill Road over Nickerson Creek. It was then he knew for certain what his fate was. Not like he knew death wasn’t the destination. He just had prayed it would be a gunshot to the heart and not a rope around his neck.

“Where’s the rope?”

His heart constricted, as did his throat. It would be a rope, which meant death would be agonizingly slow. But it was worth it. He had caught a glimpse of freedom as he raced toward it. The hands grasping him tightened. He could feel the circulation leaving his arms where they gripped him and pulled him toward the bridge. Fallen branches reached up to trip him, but the hands held him up and pushed him toward his death.

He could smell the hatred rolling off the men. It had a unique scent that was similar to fear but possessed a more sickening stench. He had smelled it every day of his life under the harsh hand of his owner. The first time the odor had hit him was when he had run after his mother who was being led away in chains. She had been sold and wrenched from her five year old’s arms. His master had knocked him down with the back of his hand and lifted the whip. It came down as his mother screamed. Samuel could smell the hatred his master had for him. He never could understand why he was not sold as well since he was so despised. It was a question he would never have answered.

He raised his head and saw the very man from his memories waiting at the edge of the bridge. Herbert Cunningham pulled his lips up on one side and spit a string of slimy black tobacco juice. Hatred sparkled in his eyes. A whip hung from his hand as the white haired man watched the group of men drag his slave toward him.

“That’s the last time you trouble me, Samuel.” Cunningham flicked the whip. It uncurled and snapped at the dirt. “Sick of dealing with your disobedient nigger ass.”

Samuel was brought up short under the edge of the covered bridge. His heart pounded against his chest so hard that he just knew it could be seen by the men near him. A feeling of heaviness descended on him. He fought back the tears that pricked at his eyes.

He thought of his family he was going to leave behind. Most had already died, but there were the ones who he saw as a different kind of family. Josiah had been a father figure to him for most of his life. He had taught him how to channel his anger when he was close to exploding and doing something rash. The old man had endured his share of beatings, but he had learned how not to turn on his master or anyone else. Josiah was a good man.

Then there was Frederick, who had become a brother to him. Both had worked in the fields most of their lives and had been there to help each other out when they struggled to get their work done. Once, after a severe encounter with his master’s whip, Samuel had struggled to get his work done the next day. His back felt like it had been on fire. It was Frederick who stepped up and helped him get it all done before the sun set. Samuel had never forgotten it.

And there was Ivan, the master’s son. Despite the differences in status and color, Samuel and Ivan had formed a relationship of respect. When Ivan had been a young lad, he had fallen into a rushing river after a series of thunderstorms. It had been an act of arrogance and stupidity to show off for his friends. Samuel had been nearby. Not more than about two years older than the master’s son, he had not thought twice about rushing to the young man’s aid. From that day on, Ivan had looked at Samuel as more than a piece of property to be ignored until needed. He had seen so much more. Over the years, they had found ways to communicate that were undetectable to those in charge of the plantation: acorns on the steps, a rock in a particular place. They would sometimes even fish together. Samuel knew who was higher up the social ladder, so whenever anyone else showed up, he lowered his eyes and became the obedient and subservient slave. Ivan never abused his power with Samuel. While he wasn’t as openly friendly with him with others around, he never singled him out for abuse or treated him in a condescending manner. Samuel respected that.

Then there was Lillie. She was very special to him. They had talked about asking for permission to marry, but everytime Samuel went to his master, he was turned away without the chance to voice his appeal. He had one consolation. She carried his child, so a part of him would continue on. He hoped the future was brighter for his son or daughter. The reason he had made the decision to run for freedom was her. When he saw the master groping her as he had, Samuel had lost all sense of reason. He had rushed forward only to be stopped by two of the plantation managers. They had knocked him down and locked him in the smokehouse where he could watch out through a small slit in the wood as not only his master raped his lover but also the two managers.

As the night drew upon the land, Samuel was kept locked up. He watched as the rest of the slaves disappeared into their cabins. A sound outside drew his attention. Peeking through the wood, he couldn’t make anything out of the darkness. The door to the smokehouse opened to reveal a silhouette.

“Samuel? Samuel?”

Feelings of relief and despair battled within Samuel as he listened to Master Ivan’s voice. “I’s here.”

“Come on.” Ivan’s shadow motioned for him. “Hurry up.”

Samuel pushed himself up from the dirt floor and stumbled out into the night. “You shouldn’t have let me out.”

“No time for that. You have to leave.” Ivan motioned toward the woods. “You have to leave now.”

“Why?” Samuel was confused.

“Papa plans on hanging you first thing in the morning. You have to leave now.”

Samuel looked back at the group of cabins that made up the small village of slaves. “What about my Lillie?”

“She will be fine. I have an idea about selling her to Joshua Bowers. He’s a good man and will take care of her until you can buy her freedom. I can’t send her with you now. If you got caught, you’d both die and there would be no children.”

Samuel’s eyes widened in shock that Ivan knew about his and Lillie’s secret. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Ivan seemed to have his ear to the ground and knew most of the things that happened on the plantation, even with the slaves. Many times he had warned Samuel of a search through the cabins and what was being looked for.

“What do I do? Where do I go?”

Ivan handed the slave a bag bulging with what Samuel assumed was food. “Head toward the river. You’ll have a few hours head start. Once you cross the river, you should be safe, but turn north and keep going. I hear of several conductors of the Underground Railroad live there. Look for a freed slave. They will direct you.” He looked around at the quiet house where the judge and executioner of Samuel rested peacefully. “You need to hurry. I don’t doubt that Papa will be up before the second ray of the sun peeks over the horizon. You need to be near the river by then.”

Samuel nodded and took the bag. Of all the things that had happened, Ivan pulling him into an embrace was the most amazing. With a quick pat on his back like he was a true brother, Ivan pushed him toward the woods and slung into the shadows to make his way to the house undetected.

Now, despite his run through the night and surviving the multiple falls over unseen rocks and logs, his chance for freedom was gone. He hadn’t made it to the river. What made it worse was that he could hear the rush of the water nearly a mile away. He had been so close.

The roughness of the rope scratched his face as it was shoved over his head. The sweat flowing into the abrasions stung. He didn’t care. There was no hope for him.

Tightening the rope, the man closest to him spit in his face. The dark fluid of the tobacco slid down Samuel’s cheek. He didn’t flinch.

“Any last words?”

Samuel cut his dark eyes over at the man and then at his master who wore a malicious grin. “Last words? Yessir, I do.”

Master Cunningham laughed. “Well, spit them out. We don’t have time for this. I have Lillie waiting for me. Want to enjoy her a little more before we do the same to her.”

A knot formed in Samuel’s stomach. He felt the tears prick his eyes and rage consume him. There was nothing he could do for his beloved. He only prayed Ivan would be able to save her from any more horror at the hands of his father.

“I swear to the Almighty that I will haunt you until your soul is snatched to the deepest part of hell.” Samuel meant every word. He wanted the man to suffer for all he had done to him and those around him. If only Master Ivan had been in charge, the plantation would have been so different…maybe even a place they could call home.

That wasn’t the reality he now faced.

Cunningham laughed. “Haunt all you want, nigger. You’re still going to hell.”

The man nodded toward those around Samuel. The rope tightened around his neck. He gasped for air that was nowhere to be found. Suddenly, he found himself hanging in the air, the noose biting into his neck. He could feel the dirt of the ground under his toes as they thrashed in the air. He was just a hair’s breadth from touching the ground, which meant he was going to die.

His vision blurred. The burning in his throat intensified. Blackness began to close in on him. Finally, his body went limp.

Samuel shook his head as he found himself staring at the back of a man. It was only when the man turned around did he see that it was Master Herbert Cunningham. But the biggest shock came when he looked past him and saw…himself.

His body hung from the frame of the Oakachoy covered bridge with a rope tight around his neck. His dead body.

Samuel looked down at his hands and saw how transparent they were and translucent. He could actually see the dirt on the other side as though his hands weren’t there. Samuel frowned as the men moved past him as though he wasn’t there. He wasn’t really. He was really hanging from the bridge’s rafters. He was dead.

Confusion muffled his mind. He couldn’t think straight as he watched his body left alone in the woods. He hadn’t realized how the hours had passed until a sound down the road drew his attention. Glancing up, he saw the sun had moved to hover over the western horizon. Dusk was falling. Birds chirped in the trees as they prepared for the night. Squirrels scampered to their dens. Samuel’s body still hung in the midst of the woods.

The sound of a wagon grew louder. The clop of the horses mixed with the creak of the wagon frame. Samuel turned a sad eye to see who would encounter his corpse. He stood up as he saw Master Ivan sitting on the bench seat with the reins in his hands.

The young man stopped the wagon with a tug of the reins and sat still, his eyes on the body of his friend. For several moments, he stared with tears softly flowing down his cheeks.

“Damn!” he whispered. “I’d thought you would have made it.”

Ivan stepped over the wagon and patted the neck of one of the horses as he walked by it. He continued onto Samuel’s body and stood there.

“I tried.” He shook his head. “I really tried.”

Samuel moved forward. “But it’s okay, Master Ivan. I’m right here.” He paused as he realized that he was still dead and his former master would not be able to see him. He looked down at his hands again and hung his shoulders in defeat.

Ivan pulled a knife out of his boot and reached high above Samuel. Being two inches taller than the slave helped in reaching the rope. He sawed through the thick material. As the knife severed the rope, Samuel’s body began to fall. Ivan quickly grabbed his body. With a grunt, he lowered him to the ground. Over him, Ivan sobbed.

Samuel felt grief tighten around his heart. He wanted to comfort the man but had no idea how. He was just a slave. Samuel frowned. No, the body on the ground was a slave. He was no longer in that body. Samuel took a tentative step. Plucking up enough courage to carry through with his idea, he moved to Ivan’s side and knelt beside him over his own body.

He put his arm around his friend. Forbidden to offer such intimate consolation in the physical world, as a spirit, he could bridge the taboo gap.

Ivan paused and looked around. “If I didn’t know better, Samuel, I’d swear you were here with me.”

“I am. I am right here.”

Unable to hear him, Ivan patted the dead arm in front of him. “I took care of Lillie for you already. Papa came home to find her gone and threatened to shoot me.” He blurted out a shortened laugh. “I’ve always hated Mama trying to defend me, but this time I was mighty glad she was there. I honestly think he would have killed me right there in the house. But it was too late. The sale was legal and binding. Lillie is owned by Bowers now. He promised to get her a job in the house and take care of the baby. In fact, his wife was ecstatic to have a new one to love. Lillie will be just fine, but she mourns for you as do I.”

Ivan stood up and choked on a sob. “I loved you as a brother, though I never showed it to you. I tried to, but I was scared. I am unworthy of being a man if I can’t get the courage to tell someone how I feel about them. Damn society! When the plantation is mine, there will be changes. I promise you, Samuel. And my firstborn son will be named after you.”

Samuel stood back and watched as Ivan lifted the slave’s body and laid it gently into the bed of the wagon. He took a step to follow it but found himself unable to move more than a few feet. After a few more attempts, he stopped and watched the wagon disappear from sight. Night settled around him. He was stuck in one place.

He laid back in a hollow formed by an old oak tree just a few yards off the road and watched as the world moved on without him. He saw the sun and moon rise more times than he could count. The leaves turned brown, fell, and were brought back in vivid shades of green. He watched the snow fall through him as he watched the wagons move through over the bridge.

Many times, he had rushed to the road and shouted to the people, but they passed by without so much as turning in his direction. Samuel craved someone to talk to him. He was lonely in the small patch of woods that was now his home. Hundreds, if not thousands, of times he had begged God to either take him on or toss him into the pits of hell. Staggering about in the lonely world with so many people around him was a version of hell he longed to escape from.

The sight of soldiers marching down the road and over the bridge kept him quiet for several years. He learned from the conversations of the soldiers as they passed that a war was being fought that had split the nation, all over state rights and the right to own slaves. He cheered when the riders sped past shouting the news that the North had won and slavery had ended.

Years continued to fly by as he watched odd contraptions take over the world, leaving the wagons behind. It was a world that he didn’t belong in. He wanted to be truly free. He had traded one form of slavery for another.

He had lost track of how many winters had passed since his death. It was a warm summer day like so many others when he heard the sound of laughter. He crawled out of the hollow of the now dead tree and watched as four teenagers made their way down the road on the strange carriages made out of two wheels.

“Come on! I see it,” a boy called as he led the small group. “There’s the bridge.”

The bridge was a much grander piece than it had been at the time of Samuel’s death. A local historical society had renovated it. He heard their whispers of a haunting. He thought they might be talking about him, but how could they know he was there? No one ever acknowledged him.

As the teens got closer to him, he noticed more about them. The boy in the lead was a white boy about the age of fourteen. The one right behind him was a young white girl. Behind her were two black children. All of them seemed to be about the same age.

He still enjoyed watching the sites of the different skin colors mingling in society. It was something he never thought would happen. The world had changed in so many aspects.

The four children stopped at the edge of the bridge. They looked it over before moving the bikes off to the side in case a car came through the bridge. Samuel saw them look up at the rafters.

“Was it here?” the young black boy pointed up.

The boy who seemed to lead the group nodded. “Yep. My grandfather says that he hung him up right there.”

Samuel’s heart ached as he heard them talk about him. He knew there had been no other hangings. He had seen every person walk by. Even saw Ivan and his family pass by. When he reached the road, they had already passed. How he longed to talk to his friend. Years passed until he noticed that he never saw the young master anymore.

The young black girl moved forward. “Wow! And all because he tried to escape?”

“Yep.”

The white girl pointed at the black boy. “Your ancestor?”

Samuel cocked his head. Ancestor?

“That’s what Sam’s grandfather says. And that’s why I’m named Ivan, and all the men before me are named that way.”

The white boy laughed. “You’re named after a slave owner and I’m named after a slave.”

The black girl sat down on a fallen tree. “But why? That should never have happened.”

Sam leaned against the frame of the bridge. “According to Grandpa, the slave owner Ivan tried to save the slave Samuel from getting hung.”

“Didn’t seem to work.” Ivan looked up again.

“Nope. He was caught. Ivan felt so bad that he buried the slave in a hidden grave and vowed to take care of his lover and that he would name his child after him in memory. In honor of the master who saved her and her child, she named her baby Ivan. The traditions started then as the families lived nearby. In fact, my father now works for Ivan’s father.”

The kids laughed as only innocent children who had never faced trials and tribulations could laugh. Samuel’s heart warmed. He walked over to them and looked at his great, great, great, great, great, great grandson. His family had grown and survived all these years later. He looked over at Ivan’s descendant and cried. They had helped to change the world. The two could be friends in the public’s eye.

The white girl picked up her bike and called out to the other girl. “Come on, Lillie. Let’s race them home.”

Samuel turned to stare at the young girl. She got on her bike. Before she pedaled off, she looked in Samuel’s direction. “Take care,” she whispered.

Before he could respond, all four children had ridden off. He saw that all hope had not been lost. He saw his own flesh and blood friends with Ivan’s. With a sigh, he looked up at the heavens and cried. Samuel felt lightheaded as his body began to ascend. He was about to discover true freedom.

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