Hi Reader Friends! We have another story from David Telbat’s archives. This is an old favorite. We’ve also added another ultra-short story as a bonus! We hope you enjoy them!
BONNIE AND I
by D.I. Telbat
I stared across the Mississippi River at a long stern-wheel steamboat paddling upriver. Bonnie, my Bluetick hound, was standing at my side. My bamboo fishing pole was resting gently over my shoulder.
As the steamboat passed, the far bank came to life with movement. Four figures dragged a wide canoe onto the river and quickly climbed aboard, but they only had one paddle between them. They bent low in the canoe to avoid attention. Bonnie saw them too, her eyes riveted on the boat, with ears perked. They were coming to our side of the river–three children and one woman. I knew they were runaway slaves from the cotton fields. Their slave masters were sure to be on their trail.
I stepped back into the azalea bushes, camouflaged amongst the various colored flowers, and crouched there to watch a little longer. Bonnie whined at the water’s edge as she sensed my uncertainty.
The war had been working its way to Mississippi for months. Every day that the Union
Army advanced, more slaves ran from their masters in hope of freedom to the west and north.
My father was a simple carpenter who saw no sense in enslaving another human being. I had been taught the same. Yet, we lived in a world of bitterness. All around us, lives were burdened by ownership, anguish, and hardship.
I watched the runaways paddle halfway across the river before I turned and slipped quietly through the oak trees that separated Old Man Bishop’s farm from the river. Bishop had two sons who had enlisted in the army as soon as they could. Bishop was a harsh man who leased his property out to others, but he still allowed me to hunt squirrels and hike across his land. He was sure to report a party of runaways if he saw them, but I could only wish the four slaves safety on their trek.
There was uneasiness within me as I reached our home on the west side of Bishop’s property. I had seen runaways punished in Vicksburg in the past. Worse yet, I had also heard of whites being punished when they were caught helping runaways.
My father arrived home that afternoon as I was chopping firewood. He was a lonely man with sad eyes. My mother had died of pneumonia three years earlier. Without a word, he righted a chunk of wood and sat on it beside Bonnie, who would have rather been hunting rabbits or coons upriver.
“Thanks for doin’ the wood, Son,” my father stated, as I finished my chore.
I was in my eighth and last year of school, but everything was shut down now due to the war effort. I had not been to school for two months.
“Sure, Pa. Finish the siding on Lucy Clark’s place?”
“Yup. Should keep ‘er a spell.”
He pulled out a harmonica and played a melancholy tune for a minute, then stopped and smiled.
“Almost forgot. Picked up a package on my way home,” he informed with a twinkle in
his eye. “It’s on the porch.”
I dropped the ax, making Bonnie jump, and dashed around the corner of the house as fast as my legs could churn. With my hound on my heels, I jumped onto the small porch. As I knelt on the cracked floorboards, Bonnie sniffed the package before us. It was addressed to Perry Hammond. That was me.
I tore off the brown parcel wrap to hold a brand new pair of Selmer field glasses. They were as good as the army issued its colonels. I studied them in awe and admiration. It had taken me two years to save up enough to buy the glasses.
The sound of horses on our road made me glance up to see four men riding up. I didn’t know three of them, but the fourth was Web Humphrey. Web was a large man about my father’s age. He led the locals when it came to political issues. I secretly called him Shadowman, due to his life that seemed to revolve around mischief in the darkness of night.
“Hey, Perry,” Web greeted me. “Is your pa around?”
My father rounded the house at that instant to stand beside Bonnie and me.
“What can I do for you, Web?” my father asked.
“These here men are from the Madison Plantation across the river,” Web claimed. “Seems we got us some runaways come through these parts.”
“Ain’t seen ’em, Web,” my father assured them truthfully.
“Figured not,” Web said. He pointed at me and said, “I was hopin’ to use your boy and the hound here to track ’em down. ‘Tween the two of ’em, they know these parts better’n anyone ever lived, I ‘spect.”
“Perry’s about a man’s age,” my father responded. “It’s up to him to speak for his self.”
“Well?” Web pressed. He stared daringly at me.
Clearing my throat, I stood up straighter. Nobody ever turned Web Humphrey down.
“I don’t much care for trackin’ down folks who just want their freedom, Mr. Humphrey,” I said. They were probably the boldest words I had ever spoken.
Web climbed down from his horse with his frowning eyes on my face the entire time. I stood my ground, though I wanted to run away.
“What’d you say, boy?” he challenged and stepped toward me.
Bonnie snapped a growl that would have sent chills up a cougar’s spine. Web stopped short and swallowed hard. I rested my hand on Bonnie’s shoulder.
“I s’pose my son and the dog here done answered you, Web,” my father stated.
“You know what happens to folks who cross me, Hammond,” Web threatened. “We’ll never find those runaways without someone who knows the forest near Bishop’s!”
“Unless you want to come in fer some coffee, Web, I’m afraid we’re just gonna talk in circles here,” my father declared. “You got your answer.”
With a scowl, Web mounted his horse. He and his companions turned their horses and rode away. When they were out of sight, my father sat down on the edge of the porch and blew a few notes on his harmonica. Bonnie relaxed and I sighed, thankful that only words had been exchanged.
“I saw those runaways, Pa,” I admitted. “They were crossin’ the river to Bishop’s land. They’ll never make it north without knowin’ where to go and hide along the way. Web’s sure to hunt ’em with or without me.”
Raising his eyes, my father looked at me from under bushy eyebrows.
“They need someone to show ’em the way along the underground,” my father said with understanding. “Is that what you’re sayin’, Perry?”
My father was quiet for a few moments as he looked into the distance, and then nodded.
“Perry, you remember the story in the Good Book where Jesus told his disciples that there was no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for his friends?”
“Yes, Pa. ”
“Well, I s’pose you know what to do then.”
“Yes, sir,” I nodded. Helping the runaways was a death sentence if I was caught, but I knew what was right.
I went into the house and grabbed an old wool blanket, then packed a grain sack with a loaf of bread, a couple cans of mash, and two full water canteens. Hanging my new field glasses around my neck, I went back out to the porch. My father handed me my fishing pole as I slung the grain sack over my shoulder.
“You know where to go?”
“Travel by night, sleep by day. They’ll be hungry. Share your provisions.”
“I’ll be prayin’ for you, son. Wars don’t last forever. Come back when it’s safe.”
“I will, Pa.”
We then shook hands as men. I’ll never forget that moment. It was the last time I would see my father. He moved aside and I started toward the woods behind our shack.
“Perry?” Pa called after me.
“Your Ma and I—we’re right proud of you, son.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, with a firm nod. “Good-bye, Pa.”
And with that, Bonnie and I strode into the forest.
NOTE from David Telbat:
“Bonnie and I” was inspired by an actual hound dog I had when I was a kid. She was trained to hunt lions, and did remarkably well. Bonnie is one of those pets that still pulls on my heartstrings so many years later. She was a good tracker. We had a few great adventures together.
A few years ago, I wrote an ultra-short contest entry titled, “Any Tree.” It won honorable mention, and was published. Here it is as a BONUS story for you! (It is fiction… ;))
by D.I. Telbat
My hound and I had been on the trail of the mountain lion for two hours.
Emerging from the trees into a small clearing, I found Bonnie whining, acting confused. She had claw scratches across her nose. Paw prints covered the snow around us. I realized Bonnie had tangled with the lion but it must have then jumped into a tree.
Bonnie’s confusion made no sense—until a grizzly padded slowly out of the forest behind me a moment later. Now Bonnie’s behavior and the lion’s location mattered very little; the grizzly’s eyes were on me!
I unstrapped my snowshoes as fast as my shaking fingers would function. As the grizzly charged, Bonnie fled to the tree line. I dove for the lowest branch of the nearest tree and scrambled through the first several feet of branches.
I quickly realized, of course, into which tree Bonnie had chased the lion…
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