May 24th 1856
YOUNG HENRY GALE was only six years old that spring. His brother Abner had just turned seven, having been born to Thom Jefferson Gale and his wife Hannah less than a year earlier.
The night that would be seared into their memories started like almost every other evening since they arrived in the Territory less than two years earlier. Thom Jefferson, Hannah and their sons Abner and Henry sat down to supper at exactly 8:20 that evening. Afterwards, Thom Jefferson cleared the table of dishes as Hannah washed and dried them, while the boys took the scraps out to the hog trough.
Once those tasks were completed, Thom Jefferson gathered his family around the fireplace (the evenings could still be chilly), and he would read to them from one of the books they had brought with them from Virginia. Except this particular one had been a gift acquired along the journey, secretly given to him by a doctor all the way from Upstate New York.
Thom Jefferson Gale had read it to himself. Tonight, he needed to share it with Hannah and the boys.
As soon as the others had seated themselves around the hearth, he spoke: “Hannah…boys…I know our lives are a li’l different, now, and you’re questionin’ why I did what I did last year. Y’all recollect meetin’ Doc Vanderhoven and his people?”
The three others nodded. Abner nudged his younger brother, grinning. “Yew you were sweet on that Em’ly !” he kidded Henry.
“Aw, shut up! Weren’t neither!” young Henry retorted, blushing.
“Settle down, boys,” Thom Jefferson admonished. “All I’m sayin’ is—” at this point, he held up the book— “after I read this the first time, I knew what was the right thing, and I finally done it.” He took Hannah’s hand and gazed into her eyes for a moment. Then, turning to his boys, he said, “I reckon you’re old ’nuff ta git it, now.”
With that, Thom Jefferson Gale opened the book and began to read: “Chapter One…In Which the Reader is Introduced to a Man of Humility…”
For more than an hour, Thom (known to friends and acquaintances as ‘T.J’.) read from a book that had stirred up a hornet’s nest a couple of years before they came out to the Territory, written by an Abolitionist woman named Harriet Beecher-Stowe. His family listened, rapt with fascination as well as horror.
All at once, there was the sound of boots on the porch. Before any of the Gales could react, the door burst open.
They were confronted by armed men, some of whom held swords. In the middle of the group, their apparent leader stood, taller than the rest. Except for a white shirt underneath his coat, he was clad in black, from his broad-brimmed hat to his boots. His long, gray beard, hair and thick brows gave him the look of a fire-breathing Old Testament prophet.
“Who the Devil are you?!?” Thom Jefferson demanded.
The tall man with the gray beard drew his sword and started toward them. “Please, Mister—take whatever ya want,” T.J. said, raising his hands cautiously. “Take it and go—just don’t hurt my wife an’ little ones.”
The bearded one in black stepped forward. His eyes, pale blue as the ice in winter, bored into T.J’.s .
The other men had their rifles trained on Hannah and their two tearful, terrified young sons. “Who the hell are you? Whaddya want?” T.J. practically begged.
The tall man stepped forward. In his right hand was the sword, and his left, a Bible. “YOU HAVE NOTHING WE WANT IN THIS HOUSE OF EVIL AND CORRUPTION!” he thundered. His ice-blue eyes burned with the cold flame of a fanatic who would not hesitate to die—or kill—for whatever cause or belief he served. “BUT IN THE NAME OF THE KING OF KINGS, OUR LORD GOD ON HIGH, WE MEAN TO CLEANSE THIS NATION OF ITS MANIFOLD WICKEDNESS!”
And with that, the tall, the gray-bearded man in black raised his sword. The men around him cocked their rifles. Hannah and the boys screamed as she quickly gathered little Abner and Henry into her arms. Hannah looked up tearfully, terror in her eyes.
Again, T.J. put his head down and hands up, involuntarily crying out. The blow did not fall, however. Slowly, he looked up. A certain fatalistic calm came over him. Home to Jesus, he thought as he met the other man’s glare. “You can do with me what you will,” he said slowly. “Just spare my wife and sons—and if I am to face my execution, I’m within my Constitutional rights to know why and by who.”
“I AM AN AVENGING ANGEL OF THE LORD, WHO IS CALLED OSSAWATOMIE JOHN BROWN—AND YOU, SIR, KEEP TWO NEGROES IN EVIL AND UNNATURAL BONDAGE!”
“Mister Brown, ya got it all wrong!” T.J. cried out, again putting his hands up.
John Brown either could not hear him or didn’t listen. In the voice Moses surely must have heard on Mount Sinai, he boomed: “IF THOU AFFLICT THEM IN ANY WISE, AND THEY CRY AT ALL UNTO ME, I WILL SURELY HEAR THEIR CRY! AND MINE WRATH SHALL WAX HOT, AND I SHALL KILL THEE WITH THE SWORD, AND YOUR WIVES SHALL BE WIDOWS, YOUR CHILDREN—”
“MISTER BROWN!” T.J. shouted, nearly out of patience. “I’m tryin’ to tell ya, I don’t own no slaves.”
“He’s lying, Father,” said one of the younger men holding rifles on them. “We know there are Negroes livin’ on this property.” Eyeing T.J. with hostility and condemnation, he added, “Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood—”
“I never killed no-one in my life!” T.J. pleaded. “And there ain’t no slaves on this spread!”
John Brown continued to glare into T.J’.s eyes with righteous wrath. “ALL liars will be confined to the FIERY LAKE OF SULPHUR! Is THAT what what you want, slaver? An ETERNITY of BURNING, DOOMED TO UNNG AGONY IN A LAKE OF FIRE?” And with that, he raised the sword. Hannah and the boys screamed.
T.J. dropped to his knees and ducked. “STOP A MINUTE, DAMN IT!” All became quiet except for the sounds of the two boys crying. “Mister Brown, I will swear upon that Bible o’ yers and anything else you want that the Negroes livin’ behind us are not our property! They’re freedmen!”
John Brown slowly lowered his sword. Without warning, he struck T.J. across the face with the spine of his Bible. “Take ‘em all outside!” he commanded.
The men, four of whom were his own sons, grabbed T.J. and Hannah by the arms. Again, Hannah screamed.
“SILENT, WHORE OF BABYLON!” ordered one of the men holding her—a youth barely eighteen, who went by the very biblical-sounding name of Ezekiel Hezekiah.
Little Henry and Abner were hoisted up on to men’s shoulders like sacks of grain, kicking and screaming. “You let us go!” Abner yelled, flailing his fists, Henry doing the same.
Still dazed by the blow across his face, Thom Jefferson Gale was dragged out of the cabin and into the night, along with his family. The were forced on to their knees. Hannah and the boys were sobbing. The scene was illuminated by the light of a few torches carried by the other men. There was a wagon and a number of horses standing about, tied to trees and the wagon itself. The horses were restless—it wouldn’t take much to spook them.
At that moment, John Brown had T.J. by the hair of his head, the tip of his cavalry sword against his throat. “Do you SWEAR you renounce the institution of slavery?” he demanded. “Do you swear on your IMMORTAL SOUL before the LORD GOD ON HIGH that you are CLEAN of the SIN of SLAVERY?”
“I swear, Mister Brown! I— ”
“Why are there Negroes on his land, Father?” asked one of the younger men.
“I done tol’ ya! They ain’t on our land–it’s theirs!”
Just as John Brown tightened his grip on T.J’.s hair, there was the sound of gunfire. Brown’s hat flew off of his head as the other men whirled and horses reared up.
Out of the darkness a man’s voice: “YOU LEAVE MISTUH GALE ‘LONE, OR DE NEX’ BULLIT GO INTO DAT BEARD’S HEAD!”
The men cocked their rifles. “HANNAH! YOU ‘N THE BOYS GIT DOWN!” T.J. shouted.
“No need fo’ dat,” the man’s voice said as its owner appeared in the torchlight—a Negro man, along with a woman. Both held rifles at the ready, aimed directly at John Brown. The man said, “Who is you, and whatch you want?”
“Steady, boys,” Brown said to his men, whose rifles were trained on the Negro couple. Raising his hand, he said, “We came to free you, brother!”
“We don’ need no freein’,” the Negro man replied.
“I cannot believe you would willingly allow yourself to be the property of this—”
“He don’t own us no mo’. We gots papers sayin’ so.”
Looking up cautiously, T.J. said, “Mister Brown, this here’s Harison and Dodie—and it’s like he says.”
John Brown looked down at T.J. “You freed them?”
“He give us land, too,” the one called Harison added.
“I saw the error of my ways,” T.J. said. “And I only wish to be redeemed from my sins.” In fact, T.J. didn’t feel as if he had sinned at all. There were plenty of verses in the Bible to support the practice of slavery.
There were also passages that supported killing children, taking multiple wives and putting people to death for things such as wearing cotton and wool together. Just because it was in the Bible didn’t mean folks had to do those things anymore.
In any event, playing the role of the repentant sinner seemed the right thing to do at the moment.
John Brown bent over and picked up his hat. He then turned back to T.J. Slowly he sank to his knees. He took T.J.’s hands, bowed his head and began to pray: “Heavenly Father, Author of the Universe, Lord God on High, Your Son hath taught us to rejoice when he who is lost is found…and in Thy manifold mercy, thou hast shown this man…this…” He stopped and looked at T.J. “What is your name?”
“Thom Jefferson Gale.”
Turning his face back to heaven, John Brown continued his petition to the Almighty: “Thy manifold mercy Thou showest unto Thom Jefferson Gale, who was surely on the Road to Perdition, and hath seen the light…”
More than an hour later, John Brown’s supplications continued: “…and as thou hast led the Children of Israel out of bondage through your servant Moses, I beseech Thee, O Almighty God, to use me, Thy Humble and Obedient servant, that I may lead the Children of Africa out of bondage…”
T.J. glanced up occasionally. For awhile, the other men had stood with their heads bowed, but they were beginning to fidget. Even Harison and Dodie, most devout and patient, were starting to wonder how much longer John Brown could continue.
“…for if a man owneth a hundred sheep and one wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine upon the hills and seek the one that wandered off? So let us be worthy of Thy mercy—”
His knees aching, T.J. was starting to wish John Brown had just shot them and gotten it over with.
“In the Name of Christ our Lord, Ay-men!” called out one of John Brown’s sons. When Brown looked up sternly, his son said, “Surely Father, the Almighty has other petitioners to hear—and our work this night is not yet done!”
Nodding, John Brown rose to his feet. He offered T.J. his hand and helped him up as well. “Join our fight to liberate the Negro race from their chains!”
“Well, Mister Brown, tonight’s not a good night for me, but lemme give it some thought and get back to ya on that.”
With that, John Brown and his gang mounted their horses and rode off into the night, followed by the wagon. No apologies or even a fare-thee-well. T.J., Hannah and his two sons stood there, still shaken from the events of the evening. Slowly, T.J. gathered them into his arms. Harison and Dodie walked up to them. “You be okay, now?” Harison asked.
T.J. spread one arm and drew Harison and Dodie into the group embrace. “I dunno how we’re ever gonna repay ya, Harison,” he said with a catch in his voice.
“You already done dat, Mister Gale,” Harison assured him.
As the family group headed back into the cabin, T.J. asked, “I don’t suppose there’s any whiskey, is there?”
Hannah—not a proponent of alcohol—shook her head. “Sorry, Tommy-Jeff,” she said (with just the tiniest amount of satisfaction). “We do have some o’ that strange pipe-weed you like so much.”
“Right, the hemp,” T.J. said, relieved there would be something to calm his nerves after he and his family had barely escaped execution by a madman.
T.J. and Harison stayed up late into the night, long after Hannah and the boys went to sleep and Dodie had returned to the cabin she shared with Harison. The two of them passed a corn cob pipe back and forth, smoking the hempen pipe-weed of the Oo-Na-Mee People back in Virginia. For awhile, they sat in silence.
In the distance, they could hear gun shots and the faint sound of screaming from over at Ahab Tyler’s place.
Finally, T.J. said, “Harison, this here’s the second time you went and saved my boys–and this time, Hannah and me as well.”
Harison shook his head. “Ah wuz pleased to do it, Mistuh Gale–”
“Harison…why dontcha just call me T.J. like everyone else?”
Harison nodded. “Yessir–uh, T.J.,” he grinned.
“Harison, I can’t ever repay ya proper,” T.J. admitted regretfully. “And I can’t promise ya nothin’…but I am gonna make a good faith effort to track down yer son Mali—and if I can, buy his freedom.”
Harison said nothing for several seconds. Tears started running down his deep maroon face. Finally, he looked up. “I’d…we…me ‘n Dodie…we’d be much obliged to ya, Mis–uh, T.J.”
T.J. reached over and took Harison’s hand. Looking his former slave in the eye, he nodded. “It’s the least I can do.”