Big Noble …
Ma never much cottoned to me hanging around with Big Noble but I done it anyway and I’m right proud I did. Noble never had him no last name that he could recall, so he was just Big Noble. He was a huge man and black as the gates of hell with the meanest looking face I ever seen, so I shied clear of him and his old shack down on the north bank of the Wapsie river. Its proper name was the Wapsipinicon, but we never called it that. To us boys it was just the Wapsie.
Me and Toby Johnson was skinny dippin’ one warm summer afternoon when we heard Toby’s ma a-hollerin’, so he grabbed his clothes and skedaddled out of there like his tail was on fire. He was supposed to be fetchin’ her some eggs for a cake she was makin’ for the church social and he knew she’d shortly be cuttin’ herself a switch if he didn’t show up right smart with them eggs.
I aimed to take me one more dive off the swing rope we put up over our swimmin’ hole before I went home my ownself. It was tied off to a big limb that reached way out over the Wapsie, and the trick of it was to hold on until it reached the top of its swing before you let go so you were flung almost halfway out. The one thing you did not do was hang on and let that rope bring you back, because you might hit the tree.
Now I’m a little hazy on what happened next, but somehow my arm got tangled up in that rope and the last thing I recollect was slamming back into that tree trunk and then falling in the Wapsie, half stunned. I remember thinkin’ that Ma would be all alone because I was sure enough drowning when I felt a big hand grab my shoulder and jerk me out of the water like I was a small fish, tossing me back up on the bank.
The next thing I knew, I was coughing and gagging up river water out of my lungs and belly while someone’s hands was pumping on my back. At last I stopped, and was rolled over to where I could see the mean looking face of Big Noble staring down at me. I was some scared, but then he broke into a huge grin, and just like that, my opinion of him changed forever. He had the prettiest set of snow white teeth you ever saw and set in that ebony face, they seemed bright as the sun. But what amazed me the most was how he didn’t look mean at all when he smiled. He looked like a big old black angel.
“Y’all feelin’ better now, Massa Jimmy?”
Now I should say that back in them days and in Iowa, ‘Massa’ did not mean the same thing it did in the South. All young boys in the northern states were known as ‘master’ instead of mister, but it did not mean master as in slave owner.
I allowed as how I was fine, as I put my clothes back on. Then I started off for home, but stopped and turned around as I remember my manners.
“Thank you, Mister Big Noble for pulling me out. I reckon I would have drowned if’n it hadn’t been for you.” Then I blurted something out that surprised me. “Reckon I could come down sometime and watch you carve?”
Big Noble made hisself a small living carving wooden toys, animals, and doll’s heads which he sold down to Mack’s General Store. Like most of the other town ladies, Ma bought a doll’s head to make a doll for her little niece Sarah and she marveled at the skill of the carving. But she still did not approve of Big Noble. He was just too mean looking.
Big Noble looked doubtful. “You reckon yo’ mama would approve of y’all comin’ down to my old shack?”
It was my turn to grin. “Well, truth be told, I wasn’t plannin’ on tellin’ her!”
After that, I spent me a chunk of time down by the river bank, watchin’ him and learnin’ all sorts of things I never knowed. He had hisself a set of carving tools he’d fashioned out of bits of scrap metal, which he then tempered in a fire and fit into wood handles. He kept them sharp on an old grind wheel someone tossed out.
He had him all sorts of other tools that he made his ownself or fixed up. I was beginning to figure that mayhap there was a sight more to Big Noble than a feller might see at first glance.
His old shack fit him perfectly, because it too was mean looking on the outside but right nice inside. He left the outside raw on purpose to keep folks away, but the inside was painted up bright and pretty with a nice home-made table and two chairs. Back near the far wall was a tidy bunk bed and the stove served to heat the shack and cook. To my surprise, it was all neat and clean as ary a woman could want. Under the bed was a wood box of some kind, and it had a lock on it, so it warn’t none of my never-mind.
Noble taught me how to fish, and soon I was taking big old catfish home to Ma, who was might pleased to have them because with Pa dead and gone, life was harder than it once was. But the house and land was paid for and we had the deed, so we got by on what we had and managed to earn here and there.
By the look Ma gave me when I brung home them catfish, I ‘spect she knowed I was hanging around with Big Noble, but she kept her peace about it. I reckon she figured me to be man of the house now and it wouldn’t do to scold the man of the house…as long as it was just minor sins.
One time we was fishin’ when Noble asked me to fetch up some dough bait he had in a jar on the counter, so I runs up to the shack and grabbed it up. As I was turning to leave, I seen that wood box on the bed and it was open. Curious, I took me a look, and I reckon I could not have been more surprised. That box was chock full of books, and they was them special ones the teacher called ‘the classics’. There was also a couple of books on the law and such, and one on doctorin’. I turned around to leave and there was Big Noble standin’ there like a big old tree and scowlin’ down at me.
“Well Master Jim, it looks like you’ve found me out. But it would have happened anyway, because I’ve decided to take you on as my protégé, if you are willing, Sir.”
I stood there for some time with my jaw dropped I reckon. Big Noble was speakin’ the same sort of fine English my teacher was wearily trying to teach me, and all his bowin’ and scrapin’ was gone too. He was standin’ mighty tall and proud, lookin’ at me with that wonderful smile of his. I just nodded, ‘cause I had no words. Finally, he reached his hand out and when I realized what he wanted, I handed him that dough bait and we went back to our fishin’ spot.
Turned out that Noble had been bought as a small orphan boy by a white Louisiana lawyer, and that there lawyer was a secret anti-slaver who set about teaching Noble as soon as he could understand. Now in them days, teachin’ a black to read and write in the South was law breakin’ so that lawyer made Noble talk like a slave whenever anyone else, white or black, was in earshot range.
By the time he was eighteen, Noble was closer to seven foot than he was six, and weighed as much as two ordinary men and all of it hard muscle. Him and that lawyer was fixin’ to move to the North where Noble could be free when that lawyer feller, who Noble has taken to calling his father, just up and died. But a year before he did, he fixed up some papers sayin’ that Noble was a free man, so Noble grabbed them papers and what else he’d need and left out of there that night. Two months later, after travelin’ at night and sleeping in a hidey-hole during the day, he found that old abandoned shack on the Wapsie and decided he had gone far enough.
A few months later, he was going through a stack of old newspapers a woman had gave him for kindling when he found a story about himself and that lawyer. Seems they figure he done run off when the old man died. He was wanted as a runaway slave so he kept out of sight most of the time and out of folk’s minds as well. The law said that even if he was in a state that didn’t allow no slavery, escaped slave hunters had a right to fetch him on back.
I swore on my father’s grave that I would never say nothin’ about any of this, and Noble just smiled.
“I know you wouldn’t Jimmy, but keeping secrets is like trying to hold a handful of water. It still leaks out a few drops at a time no matter how hard you try to prevent it. They’ll show up someday. They surely will.”
And show up they did, that very day. When I come home for supper and opened the door, the first thing I seen was Ma sitting on the bed, her lips swollen and bleeding and two big men looking down at her. I grabbed the poker hangin’ on the wall and laid a good one on the back of the biggest man’s head. He went down without a sound and I was fixin’ to do the other one the same favor when his big old fist come out of nowhere and that’s the last thing I remember for two days.
When I come to, I was layin’ in my bed and Ma was in her own bed. Both of us was beat up some, but Ma was in better shape then me. Old Doc Kershaw said I had suffered a contussion or something like that, and I reckon he was right because I saw double for another day or two. Then Ma told me the news.
Big Noble was in jail, and them two slave chasers were dead. It seems they got it out of Ma where he was by threatening to kill me, and when they found him, he killed both of them with that old shotgun of his. He wanted to plead guilty and get it over, but the judge said he was not about to sentence a man to death without a fair trial, so he ordered lawyer Jake McDaniel to defend him whether he wanted defendin’ or not.
Folks knew what them two chasers had done to Ma and me, and they thought they got their just due, so hangin’ Noble was not a popular idea. Most folks said he should just be set free and go back to carvin’ and fishin’. So did I of course but I had no say at all.
Me and Ma took our seats up front, and folks stared at us because our bruises and injuries were still fairly fresh. Big Noble come in with a deputy on each side, and enough chains to hold one of them circus elephants. Folks started mumbling angry-like over all them chains because like I said, they liked Noble. After that, the clerk stood up and announced the judge, so we all stood up and then sat back sat down. Then the judge nodded at the prosecutor who presented his case. It didn’t take long.
Old Lawyer McDaniel stood and made his case about what a fine feller Noble was and how them boys had it coming anyway and so on. Then he sat down, and the judge scowled at him.
“Is that the best you can do Bob? This man is facing a hanging!”
Lawyer McDaniel stood and shrugged.
“Your honor, my client here, Mister Noble, didn’t want me to defend him at all. He refuses to cooperate with me at all and says he’s ready to pay.”
The judge nodded, and pursed his lips. After a moment, he lifted his gavel.
“Very well. I hereby find the defendant, Mister Noble, no last name, guil..”
At that, Ma jumped to her feet, and to my amazement, tears were pouring down her cheeks.
“No, no, no! I simply will not allow this any longer. I will not!”
Big Noble craned his neck around to see her and gently shook his head no. Ma saw it and walked up front to face him.
“No, I will not be silent Mister Noble. No longer! I refuse.” She patted his big shoulder and faced the judge who was rapping his gavel for silence.
“I killed those two bastards my ownself, your honor. Mister Noble is innocent.”
Now Ma is a church going woman, so me and that whole courtroom was so shocked by her cussin’ that it took a moment to realize what else she said. She killed them men? Ma?
“When they hit my Jimmy, I told them where they could find Mister Noble because they said they would cut Jimmy’s throat if I didn’t. After they left and I realized my son was still alive, I grabbed my late husband’s shotgun and ran down to Noble’s shack.”
She paused and I ain’t never heard a room so silent. Noble was lookin’ down at his feet and slowly shakin’ his big head. Ma looked over at him.
“They had Mister Noble here tied up to a tree and were fixin’ to whip him when I walked up. They just laughed at me when I brought that shotgun up to my shoulder so I guess it was quite a shock when I cut down the son of a bitch who hit my Jimmy, and then shot the other one too. After they was dead, I cut Mister Noble loose and then we both ran back to check on my son.”
Ma looked at Big Noble again.
“Jimmy was still unconscious but we figured he’d come around soon enough. That’s when Mister Noble told me that he was going to confess to killin’ them two because he didn’t want me to hang for murder on his account and leave Jimmy there an orphan. He even dug out his old shotgun to make it look better, but if you’ll check, you’ll see it don’t even work. He was makin’ ready to fix it.”
She lifted her chin in defiance. “Big Noble never killed them men. I done it for sure, your honor, and I refuse to allow this good man pay for my deeds.”
The judge blinked and looked around the courtroom as if he’d never seen it before. Then he rapped his gavel again.
“The charges of murder against Mister Noble are hereby dismissed. However, sir, you are still an escaped slave and must remain in custody until you are picked up by your rightful owner.” The judge paused and shook his head. “It’s a damnable law, but there it is.”
Big Noble spoke up for the first time.
“If it pleases the court, I am not an escaped slave. I am a free man and I had the papers to prove it, but the box that held them has been stolen. I asked the deputies to go get it and they said it was gone.”
It was my turn to stand up.
“It ain’t stole. I fetched it up just so’s it wouldn’t get stole and I have them papers right here, Mister Judge Sir.”
That judge waved me to the bench, put his hand out for the papers, and read them. Then he nodded at me and waved me back to my seat.
“These papers are in order. Therefore, Mister Nobel, no last name, is hereby released from custody and is a free man.”
He turned to Ma.
“Now as I understand it Ma’am, you thought those vicious men would be coming back to kill young Jimmy here, and you knew it would take too long to get the Sheriff, so for the sake of self defense you decided to arm yourself and do whatever was necessary to defend and protect your son. Is that about it?”
Ma looked confused. “Well, I don’t know that I…”
The judge raised his hand to silence Ma.
“Just say yes, Ma’am. I’m hungry.”
“Well, I guess…”
The judge rapped that gavel again.
“This is a clear case of maternal instinct and self defense, so all charges are dropped. This matter is closed and this court is adjourned.”
I never did get that schoolin’ education Big Noble threatened me with because that there circuit judge hired him on as a law clerk when he found out how much he knew. But I did get an education on how to be a man.
Big Noble taught me that much.
He surely did.