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Vol. 18, No. 4

Jessup
by Ben Stroud

The tour man said, "You just pick out whichever boy you want," and Henson looked at the black men hitched on the post. Some of them were grizzled, some were young and clean-shaven, one had a roughed-up top hat with raven feathers pinned to its side and a candle stuck to its crown.
     "Which is the best?" Henson finally asked.
     "I wouldn't say there's any that's the best. How about Jessup. Jessup!"
     "Yessir?" the black man on the end said.
     "You take this fellow on into the cave and give him the fifty-cent tour."
     "Yessir."
     The black man, this Jessup, eased off the post and took a pitch torch from a barrel. He was bearded and wore a plain shirt, and his head was bald save for a loop of hair that grew at its back and curled up to a thin strip at its top.
     "Enjoy the plutonian depths," the tour man said.
     "I aim to," Henson said back.
     Jessup led him down a path through forest more oaky than Henson's native pines. Henson was in Kentucky, come visiting relatives with his mother. She had told him about the cave when he was a boy, had said that it went on for miles, that the only ones who knew every turn were the cave niggers you paid fifty cents to show you.
     "I'm from Texas," Henson said. "Rusk County. You know what they say about us Texas boys."
     "Nossir."
     "We can fight. They had more of us in the war, we wouldn't have no President Grant." That was gospel in Rusk County, though Henson didn't really know—ten years back, when the war ended, he'd still been a boy. "And none of these mulattoes strutting in the US Capitol." That was gospel, too.
     "Yessir."
     The path turned. Jessup lit the torch in a waiting fire. Ahead, green, viny weeds covered a low outcropping of rock. Among the weeds was a seam of hollow black.
     "This it?" Henson asked.
     "Yessir," Jessup said.
     Henson was disappointed. He'd expected the cave's mouth to be grander, a maw like some monster's, with stalactites hanging like fangs.
     "Lead on," he said.

To read the rest of this story, and others from the Winter 2014/2015 issue, please purchase a copy from our online store.

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