Sammy is a character study of an African American, who is freed as a slave at the end of the Civil War and wants more than anything to become a cowboy, but through unusual circumstances—gains a reputation as a gunfighter.
After Sammy is freed as a slave, he gets a job on a cattle drive heading north and through bizarre circumstances gains a reputation as a gunfighter. When the cattle drive reaches Abilene, Sammy’s reputation spreads. Sammy meets a beautiful woman and falls in love. He tires of all the killing, constantly defending himself as a gunfighter, but feels he must meet one more challenge before he hangs up his guns. In the process of getting even, the person who gave him the job as a cowboy is shot. Sammy feels responsible, and through conflicts with outlaws, roaming gangs and the demented Salter family, Sammy does solve his problems and heads back to Texas to take care of his friend and to raise a family.
"We is free, Claire! You know what that means, sugar? The war is over and we is free!" Moses said a smile on his face. His strong muscles bulged noticeably through the faded blue denim shirt he wore under his overalls. He was a tall man with a big-boned body. He held his mate of many years in his arms while they danced in circles in front of the plantation shacks.
“I know, Moses. Now, you, me and Sammy can leave if we want to.” Claire’s dark eyes sparkled and her smooth dark skin made her appear much younger than her years. She stooped slightly from hard work all her life, but there was always a smile. Her plain peasant dress had been repaired many times, and it was spotlessly clean.
The Civil War had ended in April 1965. Moses and Claire were celebrating their newly found freedom with the other freed slaves on a large plantation in Georgia. They were singing, dancing, and rejoicing near their one-room shacks where they had lived all their lives. Their favorite pastime was making plans for the future when they would be free from slavery. They talked often of saving their money to buy a farm. Their son, Sammy, had heard many stories about the western frontier and wanted them to move to Texas and buy a cattle ranch. He wanted to learn to rope steers, wear a gun and be a cowboy. But their dreams of ever doing anything together as a family ended abruptly in violence.
The owner of the plantation, Massah Sprague, had been drinking since early that morning after hearing the South had lost the war. He was a bitter man who hated slaves with an exaggerated passion. He beat them, starved them and had even killed some of them for not obeying his every command. Many times the slaves thought of running away, but Sprague threatened to hunt them down and kill anyone who dared. Most bore evidence of his sadism. They had marks on their backs from the beatings he had given them with large sticks or with the dreaded bullwhip he always wore on his belt. Some of them had been disfigured by his pudgy fists and were left with markings of broken bones and twisted limbs that failed to heal properly.
Since the South had lost the war, this meant all his slaves would go free. The thought of freeing these people whom he had dominated all his life was more than he could stand and a gnawing frustration was growing inside like a smoldering fire. He was drunk, sitting on his front porch frowning, trying to focus his puffy eyes. A belch blurted-out between his thick lips leaving a shiny bubble.
At one time the Sprague mansion had been beautiful. The grounds were immaculate with neatly trimmed hedges and cultivated flowers everywhere. But through neglect, the war, and Sprague's constant drinking, it had become run-down. There was no one to blame except Sprague himself, who now drank from the large bottle of whiskey, rocking back and forth in the dilapidated rocker on his front porch. Hatred and bitterness were building inside his clouded mind with each drink. Whiskey spilled down over his chin onto his open-armed T-shirt and baggy trousers. The crusted bullwhip attached to his wide belt.
He got up slowly and stumbled down the steps toward the slave quarters, drinking as he walked. Brown liquid dripped from his thick lips down to a double chin and onto his shirt that stretched over a large belly. He cursed the heavens, becoming angrier with each step.
"Rich, Yankee bastards! What do they know?" he mumbled. "They don't need 'em for the kind 'o niggah work we need 'em for anyhow." He came to a stop underneath a huge oak tree and steadied himself. Taking another long pull from the bottle, he emptied it and threw it away. He stared at nothing for a moment, and then wobbled on toward the festivities, his red eyes bulging with hate.
Moses and Claire held each other and danced as they sang their praises to the Lord. Others were singing and clapping their hands. An older man was playing a guitar. Everyone was having a good time. They noticed Massah Sprague when he staggered to their circle. The activities stopped instinctively and everyone looked at him.
Sprague approached the group and singled out Moses. His drunken eyes glared at the black man. "Just what the hell is going on here?"
"You gonna answer me, or am I gonna have to beat it outa your black ass!"
Moses walked toward him with an out-stretched hand in a friendly gesture. He mustered all his courage and boldly raised his eyes to his former master. A feeling of power surged through him for a moment. But words came hard for Moses because Sprague had beaten and humiliated him for so many years. "We is free people now, Massah Sprague. The war is over."
"Get away from me, you black bastard!" Sprague hissed. He took a wild swing at Moses and missed. Looking around, he saw a large stick and picked it up. Some of the women screamed and backed away.
"I'll show you how free you are, you dirty niggah!" he grunted and brought the stick down hard on the black man's head.
"I'll fix you so's you won't never be no good to no one again!" He dropped the stick and grabbed the stunned black man by his ears and plunged his thumbs deep into both eyes. White liquid mixed with thick blood gushed down his cheeks.
"My God!" Moses cried and fell to his knees, grasping at his bloody eyes. The pain was unbearable as he fell forward in the dirt screaming into his hands, and then became silent.
"You won't ever do a day's work for the rest of your life!" Sprague slobbered, reaching for the stick. He beat Moses on the head several times as the black man's body lay still in the dust.
"What's going on?" Sammy yelled, running out of their shack. He was slightly smaller than his father, but just as strong, and held himself tall with pride. He ran past Massah Sprague, kneeled over his father and asked, "What he do to you, for God's sake, Pappy?"
"Why, you slave son-of-a-bitch!" Sprague yelled, reaching for Sammy. "I'll show you, too!" He threw the bloody stick to the ground, grabbed the bullwhip from his belt and lashed out at him. Sammy reached for the whip, but Massah Sprague yanked it from his hands, ripping into the flesh. Sammy backed away to get out of his reach, but the whip wrapped around his legs and he fell.
"Don't run from me, slave!" Massah Sprague yelled, recoiling the whip for another strike. "You'll always be a slave to me!" With his arm poised, ready to strike again, the expression on his face changed suddenly. His eyes went wide and his mouth dropped. There was a gurgle in his throat and he fell forward beside Sammy's father, a kitchen knife stuck in his back. He convulsed briefly, his eyes rolled upward and fluttered, then stared at nothing.
Claire had stolen away to the shack for the knife, returned, and had done what she knew she had to do. She now stood behind him looking down at the dead figure in the dirt. She slumped to her knees and whispered, "God forgive me," then fainted and dropped to the ground in a crumpled heap.
Sammy crawled to his father. He put his arms around him and spoke softly, “You didn’t do nothin’ Pappy...you didn’t do nothin’...”
He moved to his mother and cradled her gently. She moved slightly in response to his touch. He held her tenderly a few moments and sobbed quietly.
“You better be movin’ on,” a tall black man said, blending in with the rest of the crowd. The former slaves surrounded them quickly. They covered Moses and Massah Sprague with blankets.
Sammy moved fast. Dread and fear filled his heart and he knew his only chance to stay alive was to leave and to do it soon. Free or not, he knew what could happen to colored people who broke the white man’s law. And a member of his family, his own mother, had killed a white. The fact that his father was dead would make no difference to the authorities.
“Oh, lordy be,” he said, carrying his mother to their nearby shack. Some of the others began to clean the area.
Inside the one-room shack, Sammy placed his mother in a chair where she sat, sobbing quietly, the tears streaming down the soft skin on her pretty face. There were two other handmade chairs in the room, two beds, a double and a single, and a wash basin that sat on a crude stand. Handmade shelves hung loosely along one wall where clothes and linen were kept. There were no windows, only a front door and rear exit. The shack had never been painted inside or out.
Sammy started packing. He knew his only chance was to leave and go far away before anyone came around asking questions. He cried quietly to himself. He and his father were very close and the thought of not having him around any more made him feel his heart would break. He was angry, sad, furious, afraid—and now he had to run like a wild animal. He wished things could have been different, but he knew this was the only way.
“If you go now, you have a chance,” were the words of a handsome man who stood in the doorway with his wife.
Sammy looked at the couple and tried to smile. “I’ll miss you both, Joe and Ilene. You lived next door to us since you was married. Maybe we can meet sometime someplace...”
“You have to move fast, Sammy,” the man warned.
“I know. Thanks,” Sammy said, “I’m packin’.”
“We’ll dump Sprague’s body in th’ river tonight ‘n make sure it goes down stream away from here. We’ll give your Pappy a decent burial. I suggest strongly that you leave quickly. You know what’ll happen when they start lookin’ and axin’ questions.”
“We’ll leave in a hour,” Sammy said, as he finished packing.
He went outside behind the shack to where Emily, an old swayback mule, was hobbled to a stake eating grass.
“Come on, girl,” Sammy said, placing a harness around her thick neck. He walked her to a nearby water trough where he left her to drink.
“Come on, Mammy,” he said, picking up their things. He stuffed their belongings into saddlebags that were made from cotton sacks. “We have to leave now.”
He went outside and his mother followed. He tied the saddlebags onto Emily. The others gathered around. Claire wept as she hugged her friends good-bye for the last time, then Sammy helped her up onto Emily’s back. Sammy turned to his friends, tears in his eyes. He swallowed hard.
“Thank you for all your help.” He tried hard to smile. “We is all free now, so God bless us all!”
The crowd was tearful as Sammy turned the mule and started down the road. He walked a short way, and then looked back at the house where he was born. Claire did not look. She held her head down, her eyes covered with a handkerchief. They continued down the road while some of the women watched and waved. The men busied themselves with the bodies that lay on the ground.
* * *
Sammy, Claire, and Emily the mule made their way through Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi where there were many hardships along the way. Sammy and Claire worked for food, picking cotton, doing odd jobs, mostly for whites. Other blacks invited them into their homes for a few days, but most of the time they slept beside the road, along riverbanks or in abandoned barns and houses.