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A calloused hand reached for the ground again. It lifted the rough stones there, and dropped them in the bucket that hung loosely from the opposite hand.
Jed worked alone in the field, sweat staining the brim of his tattered hat and the overalls that he wore without a shirt. He looked up at the sun once, as if measuring it for the time of day, and then cursed quietly. And then, suddenly fearful, he looked about himself, checking that he was, in fact, alone. The crisscrossed lines on his back tingled slightly as he considered what his outburst might have cost him. In the instant of this sudden shift of focus, a rush of emotion crashed around him. It seemed that all his memories had been waiting for this moment, waiting for the trigger that would send forth this wave of a pained and broken past. They accosted him now.
He remembered the way they had dragged him from his home, little dark faces watching in mute horror on the doorstep. He could cry only one thing to them that day, one thing before his body had been mutilated into what it was today.
“Papa ain’t goin’ far,” he’d choked to them. “Not far now.”
With great effort Jed pulled himself back into the present. His fist was clenched tightly around the last stone, and he studied it now. It contrasted almost too well with his skin. White on black. Angrily, he tossed the rock in with the others, listening as it rattled slightly in its descent.
The memories, once allowed to be brought to the front of his mind, would not easily leave him again. She would be nearly twelve now, Jed thought solemnly. And she had been just a tiny thing when he’d been taken.
It was times like these, alone and emotionally beaten, that Jed found it hardest to forget. He tried, sometimes, to pretend that they had never existed, that he had always been this empty shell, forced to labor under the pale hands of men he hated and who hated him in return. Yet how could he lie to himself? How could he dare pretend that this was all he had been, that he had not had a life, and love, and a family before this? They had existed, and it was only a disgrace to them if he pretended they had not.
They were his strength, the only reason he dared to keep putting one foot in front of the other. They had kept him alive when he had lost all willpower to do it for himself. They were the only ledge he had left to cling to on the unforgiving cliff of life.
Three more rocks in the bucket. White, tan, and white again. He was reminded with each one who it was that he was slaving under, and as the bucket’s weight increased, so did the realization that he was not strong enough for this. They had taken away everything from him, had stripped him of freedom, hope, and dignity. They had conquered him, and this, he knew, could never be undone.
Sweat ran in small rivulets down his face, dripping steadily from his chin as Jed brought himself upright. “Papa ain’t gone far,” he whispered, for he had come to understand that while his heart was still beating, he was his own man. Who was to say whether anyone had rights over him? God let men roam free, and white men were surely lesser than Him.
The bucket fell with a heavy thud onto the earth, raising a cloud of dust around it. “No white man’s got me,” he said defiantly to no one.
The bucket was left where it had been lain, marking the beginning of a trail of footprints made by unshod feet.