Young Jessup


Old Jessup was lying in a well, if hurriedly finished casket made of yellow pine cut from his own property, and sawn at his own mill.  However, the whiskey that his heir poured for his neighbors was store bought and expensive.  Young Jessup and his lady were used to Philadelphia society, and wanted to bring some elegance to the old plantation, to sweep away the simple furnishings and the pervasive presence of his flint hard father.

This would require money, and obtaining it without crippling the plantation was the chief concern.  By the time the old man was in the ground  Young Jessup had contracted a slave dealer and arranged the auction of all negro children between 5and 15. The two or three younger than that would make good play companions for young Thomas, his son. As a courtesy, he himself told Martha the cook that her boy Cato would be sold.  After all she was a house servant and had practically raised Young Jessup after his own mother died.

“How did poor Martha take it?’ Mrs. Jessup asked as she prepared young Thomas’ porridge.

“After considerable weeping and pleading, I offered her a good thrashing and told her she should find a good strong buck and have another.”  Young Jessup expected flat soufflés and burned bacon for a month or so, but it was a necessary sacrifice.

Martha cut a square of cloth from her own bed sheet and with a length of black thread saved from making old Master Jessup’s shroud she embroidered the fishhook symbol that was branded onto cattle and timber and hogsheads of whiskey, on every product of the Jessup plantation. In spite of her fine hand for sewing, she made the J rough and angular with an odd break in its long tail. She called her son Cato to her and tied it around the boy’s neck.

“I made you a kerchief.  You can use it to shade you from the sun or to carry any food you find along the way.  And remember, wherever that slaver sell you, show the colored folks this sign.  Anybody know the Jessup sign is likely kin to you and might help you get set up right.  Remember the things I taught you and that my Ma and Pa taught me.  The buckra got the whip but we got all our ancestors knowledge to help us if we just remember it. ”

The slaver auctioned twenty-three children that day as Young Jessup oversaw the proceedings from astride his bay hunter. That evening Martha went to the stable for some fresh straw for her mattress.  She stopped by the hunter’s stall and plucked seven long hairs from the grooming brush that hung on the stall door.  Back in her tiny cabin she carefully chopped the hairs until they were almost a powder. She remembered her father speaking of his early life on the Volta River.  It seemed that in Ghana any man who killed a leopard was obliged to present the head to his chief.  This was because the whiskers, if chopped very fine, made a powerful poison.  He believed that the hair of a horse’s tail was much like a leopard’s whiskers.

The next day young Thomas ate his porridge heartily but by evening he was clearly not himself.  By midnight he was crying and clutching his belly.  By the time the doctor arrived at noon the next day, his diapers were a bloody mess and fever was building.  The doctor declared it cholera and banned the anxious parents from the sickroom.

“I’m sorry, Young Jessup,” the doctor helped himself to some excellent Philadelphia whiskey. “Cholera in a child his age is nearly always fatal.  But you and the missus are young and, God willing can make another.”

Martha sat by the dying baby’s side, offering what comfort she could and hoping that when Cato was older he would see that the design on his kerchief was not the Jessup J, but a drinking gourd pointing the way north.

~ fin ~

Conrad Person is a Philadelphia writer whose work is influenced by the steel towns of his youth. He believes that the darkest crimes are committed in the human heart.