Preface

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of Chattanooga: “The Life and Times of Bessie Smith”

By Clifford Eberhardt

Chapter 24

As the train screeched and then stopped, the Colored sleeping car porter, who was servicing the show's two sleeping cars,  came running back to the car where Ma, Jake and the others were consoling the crying Bessie. "The High Sheriff done stopped the train.  They lookin’ for two Colored kids!  The kids tried to rob a white woman on a train back at the Union Station in Chattanooga," the porter said with a mixture of excitement and fear in his voice, "They lookin’ for moonshine, too!"

The porter looked at Ma and then Bessie.  He didn’t need to be told that Bessie was one of the Colored kids the sheriff was looking for.  "Where is the other kid?" he asked.

"There ain’t no other kid.  Bessie got on this train by herself.   She said her brother went back home,” Jack spoke up in defense of Bessie. “And they ain’t tried to rob no white woman!”

“I don’t care what happened. If we don’t get her hid ‘fore the sheriff get back here, they gonna lynch us all,” the nervous porter said.

As the porter looked around the car for a safe place for Bessie to hid, he told Ma that he smelled moonshine.  That was the signal for Ma, Will, and Cora to turn up their glasses of moonshine they had left on the table.  The porter pointed to a pantry that was built in the wall of the sleeping car.  The pantry was used by the  porters to store cleaning utensils, and it was based on the floor of the car.  The pantry was the only safe place for Bessie to hide.  It was small but it had to do, and when the porter bent down to open the door it was empty.

“Come on, kid.  Let’s see if we can get you in here.”  He said to Bessie.  The pantry was too small for an adult, but is was perfect fit for the small-framed Bessie.  Bessie got on her knees and crawled into the pantry headfirst.  Her face was against the pantry’s wall and she had a hard time breathing.

“I can’t breathe!”  Bessie said in a muffled voice.

She quickly backed out of the pantry and then did a backward crawl back into the pantry.  This time Bessie’s face was facing the small door opening inside the pantry.  Now, she could breathe and see between the cracks that separated the door from the door’s frame.

The porter pushed the door shut just before the sheriff and the two deputies entered the car. The porter then turned and quickly walked to the front of the train as the sheriff and the deputies walked in.  The sheriff entered the car and walked to where Ma and the others were standing.  The two deputies stood in the doorway of the sleeping car to prevent anyone from leaving.

“Who’s in charge rounds here?” The sheriff asked.

There was a moment of silence and then Lonnie said, “Sheriff… I’m in charge.”

“We’re lookin’ for two Colored kids. They tried to rob a white woman on the train at the Union Station in Chattanooga.”  The sheriff said, looking Ma and the others up and down with distrust.  “We searched every train but this one.  It left the station before we could get on it… we think they got on this train.  Have y’all seen two Colored kids?” He asked.

“No sur! We ain’t seen nobody like that,” Ma answered.

“I bet y’all ain’t seen no moonshine whiskey either… but I smell shine whiskey,”  the sheriff snapped back at Ma, and then told his deputies to search the two sleeping cars.

The two deputies went to each sleeping unit in the two cars banging on the doors demanding the occupants come out and allow a search.  The two deputies seemed to enjoy ransacking the sleeping cars. When the two deputies finished and all the performers’ personal things were scattered on the floor of the two sleeping cars, the two deputies said, “Sheriff, we can’t find nothin’! ”

The sheriff walked over to Lonnie and with a frown on his face he asked, “What’s back there?’ The sheriff was pointing to the door that led to the caboose.

“Nothin’ is back there, sheriff.   Nothin’ but the caboose.”  Jack answered for Lonnie.

"Nigger, I ain’t talkin’ to you!  You ain’t in charge, so you keep yo’ mouth shut, you half-white Nigger!”

“Let’s go see,” the sheriff said and everybody followed the sheriff and the two deputies to the back of the train.  The sheriff was a real mean redneck.  Ma and the others knew they had to be careful in dealing with the sheriff because the slightest misunderstanding could cost them their freedom or even theirs lives.

Meanwhile, Bessie was viewing everything from the small cracks in the pantry.  It was very tight in the pantry and she could hardly move, but she could see out the cracks that separated the top of the pantry door from the top part of the doorframe.  She could see outside but no one could see her. Bessie could see so clearly throughout the sleeping car that she noticed the gallon jug of moonshine that Ma and the others had been drinking from before the sheriff boarded the train.  The jug was sitting on the floor next to the chair where Ma was sitting.

Ma, Will and Cora had been drinking out of the jug and had forgotten to hide it before the sheriff and his deputies came into the car, plus the jug of moonshine would be in plain view of the sheriff when he came back in.  Bessie knew she had to do something.  She knew she had to act.  And, act now!  She had to get the jug, and get back into the pantry before the sheriff and the two deputies came back in.
 

Bessie slowly turned the inside knob of the pantry’s door.   Slowly opening the door, and crawled out.  She crawled to the table, picked up the gallon jug, and as she squatted to go back, the door open with Jake leading and the rest in tow.  He saw Bessie and, to his amazement, realized what she was doing and turned to the others blocking their view saying,  “sheriff, you know those kids couldda just gone home and y’all searching these trains is just a waste of time.”

“Nigger, you don’t tell me what to do, get yo’ ass out the way so we can finish searching this train.”  The sheriff moved forward passed the others and into the car.  That gave Bessie just enough time to go unnoticed even by the other performers who were still picking up their belonging off the floor of the car.  As Bessie opened the door to the pantry and started her backward crawl back in, jug was too big to go inside.  She then put the jug behind her butt and pushed back till she was back in the pantry.

In less than a minute, the sheriff was in the very same spot that Bessie just left a few seconds ago.  Bessie closed the door just in time, but not all the way.  She could not close the door because of the jug between her legs.  It was cracked open a little bit.  The sheriff stood right in front of the pantry’s door and didn’t notice, nether did the two deputies who stood next to him

 

 

 

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