The Legend of Josette

©KL Cooke

Fame after death is no better than oblivion.
Marcus Aurelius

Part I: A Note Never Found

“I waited for you as we had agreed,
And since the train arrives when it arrives,
I sat all day among the rest who need
To wait and hope, we do that all our lives:

I came in fear to meet you at the rails,
With agents seeking culprits to collect:
Returning from your cause that always fails,
Two lovers greeting would be less suspect:

We had each other here, were hidden, safe;
Surviving hungry years when no rains came:
Your wife and child began to rub and chafe,
Though giving up the fight would mean no shame:
And now I think you must have been betrayed,
By going to it when you could have stayed.”

Alone that year, the winter came in hard;
The cabin windows thickened up with ice:
Some men brought goods, but charity was marred
By village women looking at her twice:

In times of want the open hands will close;
What little came to her was bought and paid:
She had a hungry child, and so she chose
To barter with what coin she had to trade:

It was not long before the wind brought word
That gave her reason to fear for her life:
The women’s grievances were being heard
By those who knew that she had been the wife
Of one they said who stood against the state:
Why did she not deserve to share his fate?

The mule that pulled the wagon had been sold;
The cow as well, the laying hens had gone
Into the pot before the stove went cold,
When there was nothing left that she could pawn:

The men still came, but carried less and less
Of food and fuel, instead they brought dark hints
Of this or else, the meaning she could guess;
Conveyed with evil grins and winks and squints:

And so in fear that she could be denounced,
She gave for nothing what they came to get:
An opportunity on which they pounced,
While she knew that hers was a foolish bet:
And so, decided she must take her child,
With little else to travel in the wild.

The town stood at a place where two roads crossed,
And so it was she had a choice to make:
Now it was clear to her that all was lost,
But still she had to think which path to take:

Should they go north or south or east or west,
When what lay up ahead she did not know?
So she could not decide which route was best,
But only knew that they would have to go:

And secretly at that, so no one saw,
And followed after them to bring them back;
Tied up in ropes and given to the law;
A few small coins made them worthwhile to track:
The women of the town would think it right,
So they would have to get away by night.

They waited past the moon when all was dark,
And quietly walked through the sleeping town;
No lighted window to see them embark
Upon their journey, now the moon was down:

For no one stayed up long beyond the sun:
When decent folk were decently in bed
Was when they said malefactor’s deeds were done,
By lighted candles, making plans instead:

There was still danger though, the Civil Guard,
The watchmen walking nightly on patrol:
Appointed toughs with sticks, whose fists were hard;
Empowered by The Law to keep control:
The townsfolk knew that they were always near,
Maintaining order by the rule of fear.

The child was named Josette, not more than nine;
But when her mother gathered up to pack
A few small things, she recognized the sign
That they were leaving, never to come back:

Because she was a girl beyond her years;
Her father gone, and knowing he was dead:
A fact she realized in mother’s tears;
She saw it, though there had been nothing said:

Among the things, something not seen before;
A thing of value that could not be sold:
A pistol that was underneath the floor;
She understood it without being told:
The penalty was harsh for having one,
So no one else in town possessed a gun.

Perhaps some guards were drunk, they often were;
Carousing at a post or sleeping sound:
Unpleasant consequences would occur
When agents learned that she could not be found:

This wife of a disrupter knew much more
Than common people knew about the land:
Which way would lead them to the ocean shore;
So turning south, she took her daughter’s hand:

The road was rough and rutted from the carts;
The paving had been ruined in due course;
That in the Time of Magic linked all parts
By wagons that could move without a horse:
A time, so it was said, before The Fall,
Of wonderful inventions had by all.

The night was clear, the Dipper at their backs;
They needed miles before the foot fall sound
Meant guards were coming, looking for their tracks;
She knew that they could soon be brought to ground:

The smallness of the child made walking slow;
As well the pits and rocks that caught their feet:
And when they gray of dawn began to show,
Her goal of miles was mostly incomplete:

The girl was hungry, but she did not dare
To stop for rest, the town was still too near:
Nor partake of the bread they had to share;
Not for herself, but for Josette her fear:
And not long after came the sound of hooves;
The surety anticipation proves.

By luck the sound came from around a bend;
She heard before he saw and spurred his mount,
To bring their journey quickly to an end,
And take them back to settle his account:

It was the Section Guard she had slipped by,
Who found her absent when he came to pay
A visit for what she could not deny,
When he came with his threats to have his way:

Though fuddled as he was with drink, he knew
The Proctors never would accept excuse:
For they had special interest in the two,
Concerning knowledge that could be of use:
They must be found, or else it would be known
That while he slept on watch, the pair had flown.

The pack she wore, the child she pulled behind
Made going slow, as they ran to the trees;
For any hiding place that she could find,
Before the guard could bring them to their knees:

He saw them just before they disappeared
Into the woods, and stumbling on he came,
With grunts and shouts and curses as he neared
Where she had turned and stood to end the game:

He should have seen the hand hung by her side
That held the gun, but carelessly did not:
And so it was the turning of the tide;
She looked into his eyes before she shot:
What might have been the end of her recourse
Was not the end, and now they had a horse.

Part II: Into the swamp

They traveled for three nights and slept by day,
But on the fourth she thought the horse gone lame:
Unknown it dropped a shoe along the way;
The saying goes, a nail was to blame:

At sundown on the fifth they met a man
On foot, so not a Proctor or a Guard:
His hair was gray, his face was lined and tan;
His large, strong-looking hands were gnarled and scarred:

“What are you doing, missy, you and her?”
He pointed to the girl who looked away:
“With every evil varmint out and cur;
A hundred of them any given day:”
The answer to this question left unsaid,
She turned attention to the horse she led:

She showed which leg seemed lame, he lifted it
To take a look, and she saw he was one
Who handled horses champing at the bit,
And kept them calm, the way it must be done:

He felt the hock and said, “All I can see
Is she has thrown a shoe, the way they do:
But I can fix it if you come with me;
While at it I will check the others too:”

He led the horse, she followed with Josette,
Along a path, and feeling some alarm:
She knew full well the consequence of debt,
Although he seemed like one who did no harm;
That is, if she knew how to read a face:
She also had the pistol, just in case.

The path came to a cabin and a shed;
It looked like there was no one else around:
“My name is John, I live alone,” he said;
My woman is now ten years in the ground:”

“How is it that The Law allows you here?
Around our parts the Proctors keep their eye
On everyone, and make us all live near,
So what we do they easily can spy.”

“The proctors have their breakdowns, just like you;
They need someone out here to fix their tack:
A wheel will break, a horse will throw a shoe;
These happen and it is a long way back:”
The tenor of his voice seemed to impart
That he was not a Loyalist at heart.

The shed contained a forge and many tools:
As they looked on he went about the task,
While speaking how the lawmen all were fools;
Then pointed questions he began to ask:

“I come from Fargo at the Cross, a place
The train to Jaxonville goes through:”
“I have been there,” he said, “but in that case,
To ride the train had been the thing to do:”

“We have no travel papers, nor the fare:”
“Then neither have you leave to take the road:
Continuing your journey on this mare,
I do believe bad happenings forebode:
But since you have no papers for the train,
There is no more that you need to explain.

My senses tell me trouble comes behind,
But if you can turn back, I think you should:
If you continue on, then you will find
The way ahead will not bring you to good:

This road leads to The Swamp, and there it ends,
And there it marks the border of the state:
Beyond, no order that The Law defends;
A place where many have encountered fate:

The swampers are the vilest creatures known;
Far worse than any robbers you might meet:
The bodies that they hang in trees have shown
That theirs is a depravity complete:
No one with sense goes in that evil fen;
The women there are as wicked as the men.”

He brought them to his cabin that was rough,
And fed them with a hearty meal of stew:
“To help you I do not have means enough,
So I have done now all that I can do:

You can stay here tonight, but then must go,
And do not tell me what you plan to do:
I cannot tell them what I do not know;
They will stop here when coming after you:”

He went to bed, she heard him start to snore;
She motioned to Josette to make no sound,
While taking food the old man had in store;
They would be gone when morning came around:
Of all that she had sold she kept one thing
That she now left, her golden wedding ring.

The horse was stepping strong, they rode all night;
Around them now the land began to change:
What had been open fields, the rising light
Revealed as country ominous and strange:

The trees grew out of water still and black,
And yet it seemed the road continued on:
There looked to be no need for turning back,
She thought, as they went calmly in the dawn:

But then a man stepped out to block their way,
And by his look she knew he could mean harm:
More followed from behind, to her dismay,
As each one held a gun across his arm:
Kentucky rifles cobbled out of scrap;
The two of them had fallen in a trap.

She thought about the pistol at her waist;
There were five bullets left, but they were nine:
Resisting she could only give a taste
To those cocked rifles spread out in a line:

They pulled them from the horse and took the gun;
Then cut the horse’s reins to tie their hands,
And taking all the leather, let it run:
They had no use for horses in such lands:

Their clothes were made of hides, their hats of fur;
They spoke a tongue she barely understood,
And so she trembled for what could occur,
If they did what the old man said they would:
The men brought them to where they beached their boats,
And put them in, with knives held to their throats.

Part III: The Wild Girl
The boys were howling louder than the dog;
This time they had the raccoon up a tree,
Unlike so many they chased through the bog;
Their leader said, “This one belongs to me:”

It was the girl Josette, now twelve years old;
Taller than the boys and just as strong,
And like the boys, she wore the briefest fold
Of deerskin tied up with a leather thong:

Too young for guns, they hunted with the bow;
The rest all knew she was the best around,
To send a shaft where it was meant to go,
And peering in the darkness, there she found
Two glowing eyes a target, aimed at that,
And so she had a pelt to make a hat.

She had a brother everyone called Duck;
His age was close enough to be her twin:
An older brother Tom, a strapping buck
Who did not like her, she was not true kin:

There was a younger brother, barely three,
And this boy was true kin they all could call:
A pretty child Josette bounced on her knee;
The only one blood brother to them all:

The wife, called Mother, had not given birth
To any of them, though she had the task
Of raising them, with two wives in the earth;
The man who married her had much to ask:
The father was a fierce and giant man,
Called Rory, who was chieftain of the clan.

The high ground where the House of Morgan stood;
The Island, where the true kin of the clan,
In rough board houses made of cypress wood,
Were sworn to keep allegiance to the man:

Across the river on both sides were found
Five dozen households, give or take a few,
That took the name to live on Morgan ground;
Clan members then, by giving what was due:

Ten clans like this controlled the Waterland,
And sometimes kept the peace and sometimes fought,
When men were called upon to take a stand
To keep the chieftain’s hold with rifle shot:
Among the clans, a chieftain’s house alone
Stood at the highest point, made out of stone.

At fourteen seasons no more could Josette
Go running like a boy in leather brief:
Her older brother Tom would not abet
What might make others disrespect the chief:

He knew his father’s woman could not help;
The girl no longer was in her control:
The only way he knew to tame the whelp;
Convince the father to declare parole:

He also knew full well she was his pet,
And so he made his case for safety’s sake:
It was a duty never to forget;
At her age now there was too much at stake:
A change in her behavior would be good;
She was too far along in womanhood.

The Morgan took a rifle from the wall;
He sighted down and gave it to Josette:
It was the oldest one among them all,
And yet the finest she would ever get:

“This was my first one back when it was new;
A gift a father should give to a son:
The stock is old, the barrel still shoots true;
A woman too, should learn to use a gun:

That you are one now certainly is so,
And so you must leave off the boyish string:
Then I will teach you what you need to know,
And trade you for this necessary thing:
The better part is not to be in haste,
For powder is too precious stuff to waste.

We have a gunsmith expert in his ways,
And lead for ball quite easily is found;
Made into boxes from the olden days,
And thrown away, we find them in the ground:

The brimstone and the nitre come from caves
The Foster holds and mightily defends:
They trade the powder craftily as knaves;
The stuff on which a clansman’s life depends:”

He showed her how to load and how to hold:
“When shot is fired the target has to fall;
If it is game or enemy grown bold,
To pay the cost of powder for the ball:”
The trigger pulled, the flint struck down a spark;
The gun reported and she hit the mark.

Josette tamped down the ramrod with a patch
Of linen soaked in oil to swab the bore:
A wild turkey was the morning’s catch;
Her little brother watched her from the floor:

A clansman’s buckskin britches she wore now,
And never would put on a cotton cress:
The reason being she had made a vow
She would not break, no matter what duress:

“Our mother gave her life to give you yours:
I was a little child, but I recall
The blood and pain that giving birth assures;
I swore that fate would not to me befall:
I will be like a man, if people stare,
So be it then, I have no need to care.”

The skiff moved quietly along the slough;
At dawn, the only ripple was the wake:
Duck pushed the pole, Josette was looking to
The bank for any game that she could take:

They saw what looked to be a snag ahead,
Until it opened up two hefty jaws:
Josette looked down the sight to give it lead,
But then it disappeared without a pause:

“That must have been Old Satan that we saw;
Ten feet at least, five hundred pounds in weight:
No other gator has that big a maw;
It grew so large from all the hogs it ate:
It was around when Rory was a boy:
To take it would indeed have brought me joy.”

Among the hunting dogs in Rory’s pack,
Big Otis had the stoutest heart of all,
But at her heels now he was hanging back;
It was a foul scent that did appall:

For there was something hidden in the tree,
And Josette thought at first it was a bear:
Then it came out, she trembled at the knees;
Eight feet in height and covered with black hair:

Its face was ugly as its smell was bad;
It stood up like a man, but it was not:
It peered at her with eyes she thought looked sad;
The gun was cocked, she did not fire the shot:
It turned around and quickly disappeared;
A creature strange, but not one to be feared.

Her brother Duck was known for innocence
And gentleness, the kind of boy who sings:
A shame to Rory for his diffidence;
Josette rolled gut to make his banjo strings:

The clan encouraged boys to raise the fist,
But Duck did not, instead it was his choice,
If someone called him out, not to resist;
He led the hymn at meetings with his voice:

A churlish boy, not one who was true kin,
Once tried fight him to amuse his friends:
About to beat him when Josette stepped in;
“You had your fun, now this is where it ends:
But if determined that a fight shall be…”
She drew her knife…“Then you can fight with me.”

Part IV: The Singular Woman

At eighteen seasons she had reached the age
When mothers talked among themselves to plan
Good matches for their daughters to engage;
A mother’s duty was to find a man:

The wife of Rory had no part in this,
With little hope to marry off the girl;
A thing Josette did scornfully dismiss,
Nor any man think her to be a pearl:

To comb and spin and weave and sew and cook,
And women’s things like these she did not do:
Nobody would give such a girl a look,
And she was bound to keep her nature true:
A woman of the clan unorthodox;
She hunted, fought and plowed behind the ox.

There came reports about a wild bull;
A larger brute than any in the herd:
Who took it on alone would be a fool,
But hearing that, Josette was undeterred:

If singlehandedly she brought it down,
There would be meat enough to have a feast:
It certainly would bring no small renown,
And so Josette set out to take the beast:

She went to where she thought it could be found,
And dropped it with a shot between the eyes:
She slit its throat and blood poured on the ground;
A spreading pool that soon brought in the flies:
But needing help to bring it in a boat,
She slit its gut to save the meat from the bloat.

Indeed the Morgan clan did have a feast;
The bull was roasted whole and fed them all:
Dawn came before the merriment had ceased;
The lively fiddles and the square dance call:

The chieftain brought out whiskey from his store;
For true kin only, though, the rest drank beer:
And mightily they drank and called for more;
In drinking every man became a peer:

A clansman deep in cups advised the host
His daughter was the equal of a man:
He claimed, In fact, the she exceeded most,
And someday could be fighting in the van:
Her brother Tom heard this announced as well,
With narrowed eyes that trouble did foretell.

The cry was out, a child could not be found;
They searched The Island calling out his name:
His body would be floating if he drowned;
There seemed no doubt, a gator was to blame:

Josette hid in the moonlight with a goat
Tied to a rope and staked out near the bank:
The hours went by, she saw two eyes afloat,
And from the water came a creature rank:

This time she had her shot and hit it square;
Reloading to put three more in its head:
And though the matter was now ended there,
Five hours passed before the thing was dead:
Inside they only found parts of a hog,
But no more would Old Satan rule the bog.

Josette had boots made from the gator’s skin;
There was no finer gift that she could give
Old Rory, who had loved her as true kin,
And loved her mother too, while she did live:

The chieftain had a gift for her in turn:
“Your mother had this when she came to me:
I kept it for the day I could discern
Who best should have it for a time to be:

The dryland devils have them, we do not;
A dirt poor life to us they have bestowed:
We have no way to make the magic shot;
You can fire six before you must reload:
The one who has this knowledge at command
Will lead our people out of Waterland.”

She studied well this fascinating piece;
Took it apart and put it back again:
She figured out the points that needed grease,
Though naming them was not within her ken:

She wondered what was in the little stack
To fire it, as there was no flashing pan:
The numbers three five seven on the back,
And makers marks around the center ran:

She wished that she could shoot a practice round,
But charges for the gun were only five:
They must be saved for danger on the ground;
For when she needed them to stay alive:
A new thought then began to come awake;
There must be these in Jaxonville to take.

A Foster trading party had arrived
To barter their black powder for strong drink:
For long between them had such commerce thrived,
And neither from hard bargaining did shrink:

With business done the chieftains played a game
Of cards, to gamble for some bits of gold,
But tempers soon from whiskey were aflame,
And trouble stirred that could have been foretold:

The Foster said The Morgan was a cheat;
The Morgan struck The Foster on his face:
Outnumbered, Fosters only could retreat,
But vowing they would answer this disgrace:
And from this incident there came a ban;
No powder traded to the Morgan clan.

A dearth of powder would disaster bring;
More than the want of game, it would be known
Among the clans, as rumor took to wing,
And soon The Island could be overthrown:

So Rory fumed while feeling his old age,
While Tom, the eldest son, advised a truce,
With gifts he said would quell The Foster’s rage;
Humility might thus good will conduce:

But while they fretted, secretly Josette
Spoke to the boys who followed her back when
She led the hunt, and facing now this threat,
They pledged to follow her now they were men:
As there was powder still, if they were brave,
They had a chance to take The Foster’s cave.

The powder trade had made the Fosters weak,
Despite their reputation for a fight:
The wealth it brought caused them to pleasure seek,
And ease and games produced few men of might:

The ablest were set to guard the source,
But they grew less and less each passing year:
The were about to be attacked in force,
And little aid would come up from the rear:

A foster woman to the Morgans wed,
A rumor of the raid had overheard:
Old loyalties not easily are shed;
She went in secret, bringing them the word:
But when the Morgans came to do their plan,
The Fosters met them like a one-armed man.

Their chieftain quickly gathered up some men;
A party meant to reinforce the guards:
These louts were hardly fit to leave the den
Where they were occupied with drink and cards:

The fight was short, The Foster opened first,
Disregarding how he was exposed:
With pistol fire Josette returned a burst;
She hit him square, and thus the matter closed:

They saw their leader fallen on the spot,
And thinking all the Morgans armed in kind,
The Fosters hardly answered with a shot,
But turned and ran, their leader left behind:
And he would soon be going to his grave;
It was the Morgans now who held the cave.

Part V: The King

The Foster clan would quickly go defunct;
Their chieftain dead, his son a worthless dolt:
The better ones among were not compunct,
And to the Morgan side began to bolt:

Like cats whose loyalties are prone to shift,
The women were the first to slip away:
Without them men soon found themselves adrift,
As even good men are when women stray:

More women for the Morgans was a boon,
And welcomed to The Island as they came:
New stock for wives and workers opportune,
But men were tested past the point of shame:
Before the gauntlet they were made to scud,
And swear an oath and seal it with their blood.

The Morgan now controlled the powder trade,
And to The Island wealth began to flow;
Yet mindful of mistakes The Foster made,
He would not let complacency to grow:

But rather there would be a standing force
Of men free from the need to plow and hunt;
To guard The Island and the powder source,
And always ready for the battle front:

With surplus that before they had not known,
To dedicate such men to skills of war,
And for courageous mettle she had shown,
Josette would be the leader of the corps:
Tom, the son, objected out of hand;
No fighting men would follow her command.

Josette was soon to prove this was not true,
By cleverly dividing up the men
In groups led by the ones that well she knew;
Old hunting boys, each led a force of ten:

The Kincaids were the first to try them out;
Spurred on, they were, by envy and by greed:
The fight was quickly turned into a rout,
And many were left on the ground to bleed:

The rest were hunted down like wild boar,
With each one desperate for a hiding hole:
At length they all surrendered to the corps,
And saw their chieftain’s head high on a pole:
No longer would they turn to strife and moil;
In thralldom from then on and made to toil.

The clan was grown by two in land and wealth,
But Rory was made half because of age:
Tobacco and strong drink bought with his health
Had brought him now up to the final stage:

The woman wise in potions did no good,
And soon it was he could not leave his bed:
Among the people it was understood;
They would pray to Jehovah for the dead:

He called out for the closest of true kin,
To hear the final words he had to say,
And he declared as breath was coming thin,
“So it shall be now I must go away:
Although a child that I did not beget,
The chieftain after me shall be Josette.”

This was a judgement Tom could not accept,
Appealing to the Elders for relief:
Traditions of long standing must be kept;
He was the next in line to be the chief:

He had a case, the all agreed, and more;
It was unheard of, what had been decreed:
No woman ever led a clan before,
But how could Tom prevail in trial by deed?

What had he done to equal her, they said;
They feared the corpsmen that were on her side:
The chieftain’s word was law, though he was dead,
And now she spoke before them all with pride:
“With three clans under me I am a queen;
From here on you shall call me Josephine.”

The fire of anger, envy for its fuel,
Did burn in Tom, and by the Devil stoked:
Ashamed as one held up to ridicule,
Until revenge an evil plot provoked:

Conspiring with a friend, they planed a coup;
In voices low, but they were overheard
By brother Duck, who to the queen was true;
He quickly went to her to bring the word:

So she was ready when they came with knives;
Her pistol close, in which two shots remained:
Their treachery was paid for with their lives,
Upon the ground that with their blood was stained:
The two shots in her pistol were enough;
Their weapons proved to all theirs was no bluff.

The queen began to rule more than to reign;
She issued proclamations backed by force,
While keeping for herself most of the gain
From trade that came in by the powder source:

The law was what she said from day to day;
She took the gun from anyone who balked:
Dissenting ones a beating had to pay,
From corpsmen who among them always stalked:

One day she called a meeting of true kin,
Appearing strange, but laughter none would dare:
They saw that she had fastened to her chin
A beard that had been woven out of hair:
“Do listen well and let your praises ring,
For I am Joseph now, I am your king.”

The pistol empty now, a useless tool,
The king began to think of Jaxonville:
“All Waterland could come beneath my rule,
By corpsmen armed with these to do my will:

The dryland devils have them we well know,
And charges we do not know how to make:
But down the Merry River we could go,
For all the guns and charges we can take:”

King Joseph called the leaders of the corps;
“This plan Jehovah gave me in a dream:
Your finest men you shall select for war;
Success for us has been assured I deem:
When we prevail, great riches you will see,
And each shall be a ruler under me.”
Apart among themselves, the leaders spoke;
“This king is not the one who we once knew,
But someone mad, we can no longer cloak,
And death for us is certain if we do:”

“Our fathers’ fathers taught that one must kneel;
Disloyalty they held a deep disgrace,
But armaments that we are out to steal
Will be the ones that we will have to face:”

By day no more was said, the boats were filled;
Made ready with provisions for the raid:
With talk of dryland devils to be killed;
Of death they boasted they were unafraid:
To Jaxonville a hundred miles downstream,
They set off with the king to lead the team.

It was a month before they did return
To tell a tale of vain and desperate strife:
And there were some who found it strange to learn
Josette alone among them lost her life:

No longer called the king now she was dead,
And neither was she on a pallet borne:
Her royal tomb was in the river bed,
And there were few who thought it cause to mourn:

The legend of her courage, though, lived on;
With time and telling larger it would grow,
Until the battle field she died upon
Became a story everyone would know:
And brother Duck, who saw with mindful eyes,
Would be remembered as a chieftain wise.

***

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