Updated: Jun 28, 2019
I'm working on a collection of Southern fantasy stories for a future anthology. I don't have a name yet. Here's a story I recently completed. I hope you like it.
They came for Cody Johnson on a moonless night after a summer downpour. Fog covered their approach through the pines, mist rising like steam from the grass, the air so humid it was hard to breath. Every man creeping across the wet ground had no remorse for what they were about to do. Folks need to know their place. They ought not strive for what they didn't deserve. The men felt justified, but just in case they built a flimsy case with the right story and the right amount of cash which included a one way ticket out of Georgia for the accuser once the deed was done.
But Cody Johnson wasn't a fool. He slept with a loaded double-barreled shotgun by his bed and a Colt revolver under his pillow. His hound dogs were trained to howl when the wind blew hard. He knew they would come for him sooner or later. And when they did, he’d be ready. The dogs howled and Johnson sat up in his bed. He grabbed his coveralls and shimmied into them. He took the Colt from under his pillow and put it in his right hand pocket. Grabbing the shotgun, he ambled over to his bedroom window, the window that faced the woods behind the farm. The fog made it hard to see, but the dogs made it clear they were coming that way.
“I knows y’all out there!” Johnson shouted. “And I know why y’alls here. I’m giving y’all one chance to go on back home. One chance!”
The men kept coming. They thought there was no way Johnson would fire on them. He was signing his death sentence if he did.
Johnson went to his cabinet and got the shotgun shells. He was dead no matter what he did. But he wasn’t leaving this world alone. He loaded the double-barrel then cocked back the hammers.
“One last chance!” he shouted.
Silas Cane, county deputy sheriff and wizard of the local Ku Klux Klan had about enough of Johnson. He stood up straight, making himself seen.
“Shut up, nigger!” he shouted back. “You know good and damn well . . .”
Johnson fired both barrels into Silas’s chest. The man flew back twenty feet then rolled until he stopped at the forest edge, dead as a doornail.
The other men pulled out guns and fired back as they fled for the woods. Johnson kept loading and shooting until he was out of shells. He took out the revolver and shot more, striking Billy Waynewright in the knee, crippling the butcher for life.
When Johnson finally ran out of bullets the Klan rushed in. Malcolm Coldwater was the first through the door. Johnson hit him square across the mouth with the shotgun butt. Malcolm fell to the ground cussing through his ruined teeth as the other men jumped over him and set about beating Johnson unconscious. Some of the men wanted to kill him right then and there, but Thom Crowder, president of Crowder County Banking and Savings wouldn’t allow it. He was senior commander since Silas got blown to hell.
“We came to make an example out of this boy,” he said. “And that’s what we’re going to do!”
They dragged Johnson’s unconscious body out of the house then loaded him into the back of Teddy Sim’s Ford pickup. The illicit caravan sped through the night to the massive red oak standing by the bank of Poor Man’s Creek. They threw water on Johnson’s face until he revived, tied a rope around his neck then strung it to a low thick branch on the tree.
“You asked for this, nigger!” Thom Crowder shouted. The men cheered his words. Johnson glared at them all, not one ounce of fear in his eyes.
“You sorry ass crackers come to take my land because you ain’t good enough to build something for yourself. But I swear before God Almighty ain’t nan one of you will ever live on my land. It’s mine now, and it always will be!”
Johnson ended his words with a wad of spit that landed on Thom Crowder’s shoe. Thom gave Tim the signal and Tim sped away. Johnson dropped, but the men didn’t get the show they were expecting. Johnson hung rigid like a slab of meat in the smokehouse, glaring until the life left his eyes. Someone from the crowd doused his body with kerosene and lit it afire, the men watching Johnson burn until the rope burned loose and the flaming body fell to the ground. The area was swept with a gust of wind that carried Johnson’s ashes into the crowd, stinging the spectators’ eyes and chilling them like a winter gale. The men hurried away, their duty to their kind done.
The sheriff waited three days before sending his deputies to investigate the ‘disturbance’ at the Johnson Farm. They walked around the house then returned to the station to file their bogus report. They didn’t need their incriminating evidence, but they forced the accuser to leave town anyway. The Johnson farm was put up for sale, since Johnson was never married and his kinfolks were too afraid to claim what belong to them. An auction was held two weeks after Johnson’s disappearance. A few colored farmers tried to participate but were run off by the sheriff and his deputies. The entire ordeal was bogus, of course. Thom Crowder placed the highest bid, and The Johnson Farm became a part of his growing farming empire, added to his traditional family farm and the other land he’d acquired by foreclosure and paying delinquent taxes.
Thom paid a visit to the farm the next day. He was always impressed by Johnson’s farm. He did a good job keeping it productive, especially for a colored man. The fields were always neatly plowed and the harvests plentiful. His livestock was healthy and well groomed. The truth was The Johnson Farm sat on some of the best farmland in the Georgia Heartland, blessed with timely rain and a natural spring that provided irrigation water during dry spells. Thom had big plan for the property. He was going to plant the largest peach grove the state had ever seen.
He was walking back to his car when he heard a strange sound coming from the well. Thom shuffled over with a frown. The last thing he needed was some animal falling into the water source and contaminating it. He took off his hat then peered inside, hoping to get a glimpse of the hapless beast. A chilling breeze swirled around his knees and Thom felt his feet lift from the ground. The last thing Thom Crowder saw was the sweet well water of Johnson Farm.
Mr. Crowder’s funeral was a spectacle. All the bank employees attended, as well as noted county officials and members of the Klan. The governor sent his representative; he didn’t care much for Thom Crowder, seeing that he almost defeated him in the last election. No colored folks were in attendance, not that they would have been allowed. The county flags were flown at half-mast for a week in honor of a man who had spent his life in service to his fellow citizens and the State of Georgia.
The Johnson Farm was up for bid again. Crowder’s only son, Bosephus, was not a farmer and had no ambitions of expanding the family holdings. His daughter Darlene had long abandoned the family for the cosmopolitan life in Atlanta, and her twin Sharlene was happy teaching third grade at the county elementary school for white children. A few colored farmers showed up again, and again they were turned away. Crowder was the richest man in the county, so the bidding didn’t get as high. The farm was sold to the man who drove the truck from which Cody Johnson was hanged, Tim Foley.
The Foley clan had scratched a living from the Georgia red clay long before the state was a state. They were simple folk; their only significant achievements losing eight male family members during the War of Northern Aggression and a protecting their meager farm from roving Yankees during Sherman’s march to the sea. The boys usually dropped out of school at eighth grade to work; the girls married and started families young. But Tim was ambitious. He fought against his father’s wishes and graduated with a high school diploma and dreams of a better life. Those dreams died when Tim’s daddy died from a gunshot wound to the head during a disagreement after a game of dice behind Mr. Pritchard’s country store. Since Tim was the eldest, the responsibility for farm and family fell on his narrow shoulders.
The added burden didn’t kill Tim’s ambition. He found his path to fortune making moonshine, using his home grown skill to build the largest still in the county and providing the backwoods honky-tonks with cheap spirits. The business wasn’t as lucrative as he hoped; there were many hands he had to grease to keep the law looking the other way. When the Johnson Farm came up for bid again, Tim’s goals were modest. He would clear the forest, selling the pines for pulpwood and the oaks for firewood up North. He’d divide the land into small plots and sharecrop it to white and colored folks too poor to afford their own land.
Tim drove out to the land the day after he got the deed. The farm was still in good shape despite the lack of maintenance since Johnson’s killing. He used the old key to enter the house; everything was in order, although a bit musty and dusty. He opened the windows to let in the fresh summer air. He had a mind to stay the night, but thought better of it. Daisy would think he was running around with Gertrude Potter. That was Wednesday nights, but Daisy wouldn’t care.
He strolled to the livestock pens near the woods. The chickens were nowhere to be found, but the mule was still in its gate. Its ribs were starting to show from lack of food. Tim couldn’t have any animal dying on him, at least not until he carried out his plans. He located the barn and found a pile of hay. With the pitchfork he scooped up a mound and carried it to the mule, dropping it under the mule’s head. The mule ate eagerly as Tim sauntered away, lighting a cigarette. As he walked behind the mule, a teeth chattering wind blew up on him. That same wind caught a mud dauber in its wake, pushing it into the mule’s flanks. The mud dauber stung the mule’s flanks; the mule cried out in pain then kicked, its rear hooves colliding with Tim’s head and sending him into the Great Beyond.
Daisy found Tim’s body three days later. She called the sheriff; the deputies arrived an hour later and declared Tim’s death accidental. Tim’s relative built him a fine casket and buried him in the family cemetery beside daddy and the family war heroes. Once again, his ambitions had been denied.
The Johnson Farm was up for bid again. The Foley family was too poor to maintain it, especially with Tim’s untimely demise. The colored folks didn’t show this time. They knew better. Johnson’s Farm was meant to stay his, and although he failed to protect it in the here and now, he was doing a fine job in the next. A crowd formed on the county courthouse steps, much smaller than previously and with much less enthusiasm. The man who won the bid wasn’t a county resident; he hailed from nearby Tidwell County and was unknown to everyone in attendance. He paid for the land in cash right after the auction was complete, took the deed, hurried to his car then sped away.
Billy Ray Calhoun was a respectable man, as good as a white man could be for the times. Although he was a staunch believer in white supremacy, he believed that the Negro race should be respected and allowed to accomplish whatever its limited skills could achieve. He was well aware of the strange occurrences of Johnson’s Farm, but unlike others Billy had connections in the Negro community. Not only did he know what plagued the farm, he also knew the solution.
Billy hired Tommy Small, to take him into nearby Cooter Swamp where Miss Hattie resided. Tommy made him pay double the price, just in case Miss Hattie cursed them both and he had to buy root remedies. It took half the day to reach the pine rise where Miss Hattie lived, a tiny island surrounded by tea-colored water, and cypress trees draped with Spanish moss. Billy stepped gingerly onto the moss covered ground and tipped toward the house. It was a beacon surrounded by the dismal, a well made structure painted white with blue windows and a blue door to keep the haints out. A small broom leaned against an old rocking chair, another precaution for any witches that might try to enter. Billy knocked on the door.
“Is that you Billy Calhoun?” a high-pitched voice called out.
Billy hesitated before answering. He had not informed Miss Hattie of his visit.
“Ye . . . Yes, Miss Hattie! It’s Billy Calhoun.”
“Come on in here!”
Billy entered the house and was greeted by the smell of moth balls and jasmine. Miss Hattie’s parlor was well appointed; there was no better furnished room south of Macon.
“Take a seat,” Miss Hattie called out. “I’ll be in directly.”
Billy sat in the plush chair near the door, just in case he had to make a hasty exit. Miss Hattie entered the room moments later, and Bill Calhoun was stunned. The rumors were Miss Hattie was as old as the swamp and twice as ugly. The truth was the exact opposite. Miss Hattie stood as tall as most men, with smooth black skin and a pleasant youthful face in contrast to the gray hair pile atop her head. She wore loose flowered house dress that hinted at her shapely body near her breasts and hips. Miss Hattie carried a tray with two cups of steaming liquid.
“Hello, Billy,” she said in a pleasant disarming tone. “Do you like what you see?”
Billy turned red as a beet. “I must say I do, Miss Hattie.”
Miss Hattie chuckled. “I meant the furniture. Had it shipped all the way from New Orleans.”
“Of course,” Billy replied. “It’s beautiful.”
Miss Hattie offered Billy tea, then sat on the sofa on the opposite side of the room. Billy sipped his tea and felt a calm pass through his body. Miss Hattie grinned as if she knew what he was feeling.
“This is excellent tea,” he said.
“I know,” Miss Hattie replied. “It was Cody’s favorite. He loved it as much as he loved his land.”
A chill gripped Billy as Miss Hattie uttered those words. He placed down his cup.
“That’s what I’m here to discuss, Miss Hattie,” he said. “You probably already know that I purchased the deed to Cody’s farm.”
“Mr. Johnson to you,” Miss Hattie said. “You didn’t know the man, and you don’t have the right to address him like you did.”
“I apologize,” Billy said. “I never meant to offend. People in my county know that I have always thought well of the Negro race.”
“Let’s get down to it,” Miss Hattie said. “You want me to help you lay claim to Cody’s farm. You want me to lay Cody’s spirit to rest.”
“Yes I do,” Billy replied. “And I’m willing to pay whatever it takes to do so.”
“Five thousand dollars,” Miss Hattie said.
Billy almost fell out of his chair. “What?!?”
“You heard me right,’ Miss Hattie replied. “Cody never was able to get his full due from his land because of white folks, and I know full well what that land will be worth in your hands. You’ll make more than enough.”
Billy rubbed his chin. “Still, that’s a lot of money . . .”
“For a nigger?” Miss Hattie finished. “You have a choice, Billy. Pay me and claim Cody’s farm, or leave. Your choice.”
Billy looked to the source of the voice. A girl stood in the doorway to the rest of the house, the mirror image to Miss Hattie. Miss Hattie looked at the girl and frowned.
“Get back to your room,” she said. “I’m working.”
“Yes ma’am,” the girls said. She glanced at Billy then backed into the darkness.
“A sweet looking child,” Billy commented. “Who’s her daddy?”
“That’s none of your business,” Miss Hattie said. “Do we have a deal?”
Billy leaned back into his chair. “Five thousand is a lot of money for anyone. But I understand what you’re doing. You’re looking out for yourself and your child. I think twenty-five hundred is good enough.”
Miss Hattie stood. “It was nice meeting you, Billy. I wish you luck with your new farm.”
Billy jumped to his feet. “That’s it? You’re not open to haggling?”
“No,” Miss Hattie replied. “Five thousand or nothing.”
Billy surrendered. “I don’t have that kind of money right now.”
“When you get it, send it by Tommy,” Miss Hattie said. “I’ll send you what you need.”
“How do I know I can trust you,” Billy asked.
“You don’t,” Miss Hattie replied. “It’s a risk you’ll have to take. Goodbye, Billy. See yourself out.”
Billy Calhoun left Miss Hattie’s house in a quandary. He’d purchased the Johnson Farm for much less that its worth, yet Miss Hattie’s deal would bring the price slightly higher than he’d planned. But he had no choice. Cody Johnson’s spirit had to be quelled.
Three days after their meeting Billy Calhoun returned to Miss Hattie’s house with five thousand dollars. He knocked on the door. Instead of Miss Hattie, he was greeting by the girl. She held a burlap sack in one hand and a small box in the other.
“Mama told me to give you this,” she said.
Billy took the bag and the box. He placed them on the porch then handed the girl an envelope with the money.
“You make sure your Mama gets that,” he said.
The girl frowned. “I ain’t no thief.”
“I know,” Billy said. “Tell your mama I said thank you.”
Billy picked up the items and began to leave.
“What a minute,” the girl said.
She handed Billy a folded piece of paper.
“Instructions,” she said.
“Thank . . .”
The girl closed the door on him. Billy unfolded the note and read it on his way back.
Inside the bag is another bag. After the next rain, spread the contents on the grounds as well as you can. Once that’s done, build a small fire outside the barn. Take half the contents of the small box and throw it into the fire. Take the rest of it home and brew it. Sprinkle a little on your shoes, then drink the rest. Cody won’t worry you no more.
Billy did as Miss Hattie instructed. The rain that soaked the farm appeared like divine intervention, a brief summer squall that released its blessing only on the farm and the nearby woods. Billy arrived on the property a few hours later, spreading the odoriferous concoction over the grounds. It took a moment to start a fire on the damp grounds; once it was lit Billy tossed half the contents on the box into the fire and was rewarded with the pleasant aroma of Miss Hattie’s excellent tea. The fragrance cancelled out the contents of the bag, restoring order to the farm. Billy drove home, kissing his wife and patting his dog’s head before brewing the tea. He dropped the tea on the floor as instructed, then spent the evening enjoying the brew while reading the newspaper. Billy slept peacefully, expectant of the days ahead.
The next morning Billy’s wife awoke and prepared breakfast. She called out for her husband, then went to find him when he didn’t answer. Billy lay in the bed, a pleasant look on his face. His wife grinned, then shook her husband to wake him. His head fell at an odd angle, and his wife covered her mouth in shock. Billy Calhoun had died in his sleep with dreams of the Johnson Farm.
The county coroner announced his findings on Billy’s death two weeks after it occurred. Billy had ben poisoned. The initial suspicion went to his wife, but everyone who knew the Calhouns vouched for Mrs. Calhoun and her fathomless love for her husband. Time passed and whispered became rumors. Those rumors were enough for the Klan. On a moonless night they gathered at the edge of Cooter Swamp, piled into their johnboats and set off for Miss Hattie’s home. Once they reached isolated abode they opened fire, tearing the house apart with buck shot and 30/30 rounds. They landed their boats in an invasion of white robes, bursting into the house to see their handiwork firsthand. They were disappointed. There was no one inside; no body to claim and defile. They looted the home of whatever furniture or items undamaged by their gunfire then set the house ablaze.
Once again Johnson’s Farm was up for bid. This time, no one came. The message was clear to both Negroes and White people; Johnson’s farm belonged to Cody Johnson. The land became part of county property, where it languished, nature claiming what once belonged to her. Building decayed and collapsed. The only building that withstood time was Johnson’s home. Though vines found purchase on the walls, the building refused to succumb. It was as if Cody Johnson was inside holding up the walls himself.
Decades came and went. The world changed and the state reluctantly conformed. The latest governor announced a highway would be built running the length of the state, and that highway would run through the county. Of course, those privy to such information quickly purchased the land the state would claim, all except Johnson’s Farm. The highway came through with an army of bulldozers, levelers and pavers, bringing a level of prosperity the county had never seen. Tax revenues swelled as did the pockets of the county officials. But due to the attention of the state and the country, the old political system was dismantled. The new ‘liberal’ residents of the county clashed with the down home folks as the county was dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Through all the change and turmoil, the Johnson Farm remained untouched until a warm day in March, ten minutes after the property office of the new county government building opened for business. The old time bell rang as a tall umber skinned woman entered the building, walking with a regal stride. Her floral print dress matched the headwrap that towered over her, her matching hoop earrings and septum ring complementing her bracelets. The clerk looked at her in wonder; she was definitely not from around these parts.
“May I help you?” the clerk asked with a syrupy southern drawl.
“Yes,” the woman answered. “I’d like to inquire about purchase a certain property.”
“Do you have any paperwork?” the clerk asked.
The woman handed the clerk the survey papers.
“I think it’s called Johnson’s Farm.”
The clerk tensed. She unrolled the survey documents then nodded.
“Yes, this is the property,” she said.
“Excellent!” the woman took off her shades, revealing her dark brown eyes.
“Do you know who I should speak to about purchasing the property?”
“The land belongs to the county,” the woman said. “Although I’m not sure you would want to purchase it.”
The woman’s smile faded. “Is it for sale?”
“Then I wish to purchase it.”
The clerk hesitated and the woman rolled her eyes.
“This isn’t about to get racial, is it?” she said. “Because if it is and I am more than willing . . .”
The clerk shook her head. “No, no. It’s not that. Claymont County is very progressive. It’s just . . .”
The clerk hesitated. She wasn’t about to get tangled in a racial discrimination lawsuit over a haunted piece of property. Besides, whoever his woman was, she wasn’t local. She wasn’t worth the warning.
“Nothing, ma’am,” the clerk said. “I apologize if I offended you."
“Apology accepted,” the woman said with a smile. “My lawyer will be here in a week to handle the details. I hope the land will still be available.”
“It will,” the clerk said.
“Thank you so much,” the woman replied. She turned with a flourish and strode out of the building, leaving a vacuum of style in her wake.
Her lawyer arrived a week later as she promised, and after eighty years the Johnson Farm had a new owner. The legal documents listed the new owner’s name as Stephanie Huggins, although her popular name was Naomi Sunshine. Naomi was a Silicon Valley celebrity, earning her multi-million dollar fortune before the age of 25 by creating a collection of apps found on almost every smart phone in the world. At the height of her success she abandoned the high stress world of business to become a children’s author, where the name Naomi Sunshine was born. Naomi came to Claymont County with a purpose. Every company hired to work on the property was Black owned. In another time this would have caused major problems, but prosperity in the county allowed a certain leeway among the powers that be. If a local Black company wasn’t available, a company was hired from out of town. The property was cleared, and a small home was constructed a few yards behind the original home. It was when renovations began on the original home that the locals took notice. Although most of the people who lived during those earlier dark days had gone on to Glory, the story of Johnson Farm lingered. Would some tragedy befall Miss Sunshine? Only time would tell.
Miss Sunshine’s plans for the old house were revealed when she applied for a business permit. The house was to be transformed into a vegan restaurant, the first in the county. Most of the vegetables would be grown on the farm. Miss Sunshine hired local Black farmers to clear, plant and maintain the land. By the time Miss Sunshine returned she’d become a local celebrity. The restaurant opened with great fanfare and became an instant success. Miss Sunshine’s, as the restaurant was named, became a favorite stop for the health conscious road weary and the local vegan community. Naomi was the perfect hostess; although she didn’t work in the restaurant, she would often stroll from her house to talk to customers or would be seen tending the fields or her garden. It was inevitable that the nearby television statement would want to interview Miss Sunshine, and she graciously accepted.
WTAQ TV, The Sound of the South, arrived on a hot summer day an hour before Miss Sunshine opened. Naomi greeted them with her warm smile, leading the crew to a table near the busy kitchen. The station sent their best anchor, Brandon Calhoun, a straw blonde local boy, former football standout and Communications graduate from University of Georgia. Brandon, being the southern gentleman that he was, pulled Naomi’s chair out for her before sitting and checking his mike.
“Thank you for allowing us to interview you, Miss Sunshine,” he said.
“It’s my pleasure,” Naomi replied.
“I must say you’ve accomplished so much in a short period of time.”
“It’s my nature,” Naomi said. “Once I set my mind on something, it gets done with a quickness.”
Brandon laughed. “You’ve put Claymont County on the map. You could have built your restaurant anywhere. Why Claymont County?”
“I wanted to return to my roots,” Naomi said.
Brandon’s eyebrows rose. “Your roots?”
“Yes. I grew up in Atlanta, but my great grandmother was from Claymont.”
“This is fascinating!” Brandon said. “My family had been here for generations. She may be someone I know.”
“That’s not likely,” Naomi replied. “Relations between Black and White people back then were strained, to say the least.”
“That’s true,” Brandon said. “Thank goodness for progress.”
A waiter came from the kitchen carrying a tray with two cups and a teapot.
“Ah,” Brandon said. “Is this some of Miss Sunshine’s famous organic tea?”
“Yes it is,” Naomi said.
“I’ve been dying to try it.”
Naomi poured Brandon a cup and he took a sip.
“This is fantastic,” he said.
“Thank you. It’s a blend handed down from my great grandmother. The rumor is that she was a root worker.”
Brandon sipped more tea before placing his cup down.
“Let’s talk about that,” Brandon said.
“Well, the family story is that my great grandmother came into some money then left the county and moved to Atlanta. She started a business selling home remedies. She was able to send my grandmother to school. She graduated from Spelman then moved to Washington D.C. My mother and I were born there.”
“And your mother?”
“She graduated from Howard and became a doctor.”
Brandon sipped more tea. “I guess the medical profession wasn’t for you?”
“It wasn’t my cup of tea,” Naomi replied with smile.
“And the rest is history,” Brandon said. “You know I have a link to this property as well. My grandfather owned it briefly. Unfortunately, he took ill and died before he could develop it.”
“You mean Bill Calhoun?”
Brandon’s smile faded.
“Yes. That’s him.”
Naomi smiled. “My great grandmother was known around here as Miss Hattie. Miss Hattie Johnson, to be exact. My grandmother was five when they left the county.”
Brandon winced and rubbed his stomach.
“It seems this tea doesn’t agree with me.”
“Really? I’m surprised.”
Brandon stood and wobbled.
“I think we’re done here,” he said. “It was interesting talking to you, Naomi.”
“Miss Sunshine,” Naomi corrected.
The TV crew packed up their gear and left the restaurant. Brandon stumbled behind them. He stopped suddenly then threw up. Naomi watched it all with a smile on her face.
“People shouldn’t take what they don’t deserve,” she whispered. “Ain’t that right, great granddaddy?”
A cool breeze blew through the restaurant. Naomi smiled then sauntered back to her garden. Johnson Farm was in good hands once again.