He moved to Pratt City, the town that was made up of ex-cons, white and black alike. Convict miners who were now free miners. His first night there, he asked around for a few minutes until he found Joecy, along with his wife and children, who had moved out to Pratt City to be with him.
“Ain’t you got no one?” Joecy’s wife said, frying up some salt pork for H, working hard to make up for the fact that he had not eaten a good meal for ten years, maybe more.
“Had a woman named Ethe, long time ago, but I reckon she ain’t gon’ wanna hear from me now.”
The wife gave him a piteous look, and H figured she was thinking she knew the whole story of Ethe, having married a man herself before the white man came and labeled him con.
“Lil Joe!” the wife called, over and over, until a child appeared. “This our son, Lil Joe,” she said. “He know how to write.”
H looked him over. He couldn’t have been more than eleven years old. He was knobby-kneed and clear-eyed. He looked just like his father, but he was different too. Maybe he wouldn’t end up the kind of man who needed to use his body for work. Maybe he’d be a new kind of black man altogether, one who got to use his mind.
“He gon’ write yo woman,” the wife said.
“Naw,” H said, thinking about how Ethe had fled the room the last time they were together, fled like a spirit was chasing her. “Ain’t no need.”
The wife clucked her tongue twice, three times. “I ain’t gon’ hear none of that,” she said. “Somebody gotta know you free now. Somebody in this world need to know at least that.”
“With all due respect, ma’am. I got myself, and that’s all I ever needed.”
Joecy’s wife looked at him long and hard, and H could see all the pity and anger in that look, but he didn’t care. He didn’t back down, and so, finally, she had to.
The next morning, H walked with Joecy over to the mine to ask for work as a free laborer.
The boss man was called Mr. John. He asked H to take off his shirt. He inspected the muscles on his back and on his arms, and whistled.
“Any man what can spend ten years working at Rock Slope and live to tell about it’s worth a-watching.
Made some deal with the devil, have you?” Mr. John asked, looking at H with his piercing blue eyes.
“Just a hard worker, sir,” Joecy said. “Hard and smart, too.” “You vouch for him, Joecy?” Mr. John asked.
“Ain’t none better but me,” Joecy said.
H left with a pick in his hands.