In his first novel, Bud Fussell has penned an epic: a struggle between two very different brothers; a pioneer man of the early 19th century building a family and an empire; a troubled soul far from home encountering travel and grace. Jake is the Scoundrel, an unforgettable character living out a saga that remains in the reader’s mind and heart long after the book is finished.
The rolling hills were beautiful at that time of year. The trees had traded their spring and summer green for spectacular shades of red, yellow, and orange. Those that still held on to their tan and brown leaves added just enough contrast to create God’s perfect palate. Added to that, the sky was deep, deep blue. Contrasting to the puffy white clouds, it defied an artist’s imagination.
While the view from any of the hilltops was amazing, one hill was slightly higher than the rest and that was the one Raymond was going to prepare for Jake’s funeral. From there one could take in the breathtaking panorama of miles and miles of Big Jake’s ranch and the magnificent view of the main house. It was what Jake had asked for when he made Joey promise to bring him back to Cana for burial. He would be buried next to Leann.
It was ironic Raymond and Sue were on the hill together. When he was alive, Jake had been adamant about keeping the two apart. They sat beneath a huge sycamore silent for several minutes as they absorbed the peace and beauty of their surroundings.
Both wanted to bring up a subject they hadn’t talked about before, but neither wanted to be the first to speak. The mood and circumstances of the afternoon brought it to the forefront of their minds. Now that Jake was no longer an obstacle, each of them wondered what would happen next in regard to their relationship.
Finally, Sue couldn’t hold back any longer. Reaching over, she placed her hand on Raymond’s. “Have you had any thoughts about what is going to happen with us? Are we going to go on the way we have for years or are we going to make changes in our lives that will let us include each other more? Thanks to your pa we are both pretty wealthy now. If we want to join forces and combine our land, we can become real important to a lot of people. Besides, I love you, Raymond.”
He didn’t say anything for a minute or so, then replied, “I don’t know. Pa had such a hard time about you and me being together I still feel kind of uncomfortable about doing something I know he wouldn’t like. I’ve been thinking about it, but I just don’t know. I guess I feel guilty.”
Changing the subject, he said, “We’ll talk about it later, okay?” Then he said, “It’s getting pretty late so let’s wait ‘til tomorrow to start setting things up. We still have enough time.”
As they started to leave, Asa and Thomas rode up. Before any of them could say anything, Raymond turned toward Sue and with his back toward the others, he mouthed the words, “I love you, too.”
Asa was the first to speak. “Mr. Raymond, is there anything we can do to help you? Master Jake was like our family and we wanna help you get things ready for his burying.”
Thomas added, “It don’t matter what you want us to do; we just wanna do something for Master Jake.”
“Okay men, I can use the help,” Raymond replied, “but it’s so late in the day now that I’ve decided to wait ‘til in the morning to start setting things up. Come on back then and we’ll get started. Pa really loved you two and he would be happy to have you help with this last thing for him.”
Asa and Thomas were two of the first four slaves Jake bought when he and Josiah went down to Dayton several years before. Jake saw potential in the two right away and not only made them supervisors, but went back to the slave market and bought women to be their wives. Later, he gave all of them their freedom. In addition to the humane treatment, Jake worked out a deal for each of them to get one hundred and sixty acres through the Homestead Act plus he gave each of them one hundred and fifty acres when he freed them. Jake’s help and influence pretty much propelled the pair into positions of respectability among the citizens of Cana. Not many colored folks had that standing around the area. The fact that Jake owned practically the entire town of Cana and most of the land around it didn’t hurt either.
Cana might have been called a town, but it was actually just a little community located in the southwestern part of the country. It was made up of a few families who sharecropped the land surrounding the town. They were a blend of native westerners and easterners who had tried unsuccessfully to cross the country from the East to California. The unbearable conditions on the trail – extremes in temperature, sickness with no doctors available, and the constant threat of being attacked by outlaws and Indians—made the trip harsh. Many simply didn’t have the heart to continue and just gave up, ending their trip in Cana.
There were other towns located in strategic areas on the edge of Big Jake’s land made up of similar people. Cana, however, was where Jake grew up and it was a special place for him.
It was not on the trail to anywhere. One had to be going there intentionally so the large crowd converging on the town was a big deal. Folks in that part of the country had never seen anything like it, especially for a funeral. Jake had done big things in life, and it was only fitting the celebration of his life be marked by the huge ceremony planned to honor him in death.
Big Jake had amassed a fortune, the largest part made up of the huge amount of land he owned. Jake himself probably hadn’t known exactly how much he had. Some estimated around 765,000 acres. His ranch was actually larger than the State of Rhode Island. In addition to the land, he had thousands of heads of cattle, sheep, hogs, and hundreds of horses. He was a major grower of cotton, citrus fruit, rice, peanuts and sorghum. His lumber business had become a large part of his enterprises.
Thanks to a few savvy individuals whom he had trusted to look after his interests, he was one of the richest men in the country, if not the richest. His large family was a big help, but the major part of his labor force was made up of black slaves, a few people of mixed race and several white indentured servants and their families.
Since he was really old, Jake’s death was not a surprise to anybody. But it’s always hard to lose a parent even though you’re expecting it. It was recorded that Jake had fathered thirteen children: twelve sons and one daughter by four different women. Two of the women were white slave girls whom Jake later set free, but who stayed on with him and his two wives. Many people thought several of his mixed-race and white slaves were actually his offspring, but no one ever spoke of it. Jake was too powerful for most people to cross, and the average person thought twice before meddling in something to do with him. It was none of their business, anyway.
Jake’s favorable name was achieved in a large part through the influence of his business associates and this drew many people, but the prominence of his son, Joey, was the main reason for such a huge turnout for the funeral. It was unlikely that many people knew anything about Jake’s life before he came back to Cana, but once he got back, he made a huge impact on the whole region. His life, for the most part, consisted of trying to outsmart, out-maneuver and con his way to the top, but much of this took place before he returned.
He didn’t always have such a favorable reputation. In fact, he had a very poor one until late in his life.
From a very early age, Jake was what might be called a scoundrel. He wanted a lot, but was not willing to work for it. If he could con somebody in order to get what he wanted, it was all the better. He would often cheat or steal to get whatever it was he wanted.
He loved his mother and was content to let her do nearly everything for him. He was happy to stay in the house with her most of the time. She loved him, too, and it was easy to see that he was her favorite.
As a young man Jake had overheard his pa speaking to his brother, Eph.
“Son, I told Perry Jordan I would buy that big Hereford bull of his, and I want you to ride over to Sparta to get him.”
Eph jumped at the chance to go. “Okay Pa. I’m glad you’re sending me. When you sent me over there last fall, I found a nice little sixty-acre spread I think I can get for a really good price. If I can get it right, do you think I should buy it?”
“Well, I don’t know why you would want a spread all the way over there, but you know what it is. Can you afford it? If you can and if you like it that much, I guess I would go ahead and get it.”
Eph felt better having talked to his father about the deal. Also, while in Sparta he had struck up a conversation with cute little Maggie Thompson, and was anxious to see her again. He just hoped she wanted to see him too. Accomplishing all these things, plus the distance to Sparta, it would be at least two days and possibly three before he would get back home.
Jake was always plotting how he could do something to make a big score and this fit perfectly into his plan. His jealousy of Eph caused it to not matter that it involved stealing from his own brother. All he could see were dollar signs. Conscience never entered into it. While Eph went to Sparta, Jake would go to Bradon.
Eph had been in Bradon a couple years earlier and during the course of business he’d run into Don Payne who was talking about wanting to sell a nice piece of land he had.
A fellow named Gerald Hall wanted it, but never seemed ready to close the deal. Eph became interested in the property, and convinced Don to sell the land to him. Don didn’t know Gerald very well, but he did know Eph and knew he had a spotless reputation. Eph was also very charismatic and this made Don comfortable in selling to him. The two had also had a couple of minor dealings in the past.
At the Bradon Bank, Eph arranged for a loan to pay Don, then went to the Land Office to get the deed. From there he headed home. When he got home he put the deed in a drawer in his room with some other papers where he was sure it would be safe.
Every time he had a chance, Jake would go into Eph’s room and rifle through his things. After Eph’s trip to Bradon he found the deed. Notes Eph had made contained the names of Don Payne and Gerald Hall. Jake kept that information in his head until he found the best time to use it.
As soon as Jake knew Eph was on his way to Sparta, and far enough away to not come back for something he might have forgotten, he saddled up and headed for Bradon. He wasn’t sure exactly where he was going, but he figured Gerald Hall was the one he would try to find.
He went to the Land Office, asked where Gerald lived and rode out there. Gerald lived about four miles outside of Bradon and when Jake got there he walked up on the porch and knocked on the door. A stern looking middle-aged man answered and didn’t say anything at first; he just looked at Jake. Jake asked, “Are you Gerald Hall?”
Gerald said, “Yeah.”
Then Jake said, “I’m Jake Isaacson from Cana. I think you know of my brother Eph. Can I come in and talk to you for a minute?” Gerald opened the screen door and gave Jake a hand-signal to come in and offered him a chair.
“How Can I help you Mr. Isaacson?” Gerald asked.
“Well, Mr. Hall, I guess I’ll just cut to the chase. Do you remember a couple of years ago when Mr. Don Payne had a piece of land for sale that you wanted and he sold it to my brother, Eph, instead?”
Gerald said, “Yeah, I was disappointed when I didn’t get it. That property borders this farm and that would have made my place just exactly the size I wanted it to be. Why are you asking about it?”
Jake continued, “My brother asked me to come here for him. He is a proud man and is embarrassed to face you. He wanted me to tell you that if you still want that land, he will sell it to you for what he paid for it. He has over-extended himself and prays you still want it. I have brought the sale papers with me and we can make the deal right now. I have my brother’s power of attorney, so I can sign for him.”
Jake had copied the papers he found in Eph’s room, and he presented them to Gerald.
He wasn’t totally convinced by Jake’s story, but wanted the land. Since the papers looked authentic, he decided to accept the deal. “Okay, I’ll take it. Are you sure you can do all the paperwork for your brother when we get to the land office?”
Jake assured him he could. “Besides, I have a letter from my brother authorizing me to act for him. I also have a copy of the power of attorney, so there should be no problem.”
Everything went well at the Land Office and Gerald gave Jake two bags of gold to pay for the land. “I’m sorry your brother is having problems,” he said, “but I appreciate his sending you to do me this very big favor. I was really disappointed when I didn’t get the land when it was for sale before. “I have heard your brother is a good man and this confirms that in my eyes. Please give him my best regards.” They said good-bye and each went on his way.
Jake was ecstatic as he mounted up and started home. He had just executed the cleverest deal anyone could imagine. Eph had probably bought the property to use after their dad’s death, but Ike was still a relatively young man. More than likely, Eph wouldn’t make a trip over there until after Ike’s passing. In the meantime, Jake had two bags of gold and plenty of time to figure out how he would handle things when that time came.
His deep-seated jealousy of Eph made this deal that much sweeter in his warped mind.
When he got home from Bradon, he went immediately to see his mother and took her into his confidence. He was such a mama’s-boy he couldn’t wait to tell her he had completed a big deal, but he didn’t go into much detail and didn’t mention that it affected Eph.
Then he couldn’t stand it any longer. He had to tell her what he did. “Ma, you might not like it, but I sold Eph’s land in Bradon.”
“Yes ma’am, I sold it.”
“Whatever possessed you to do something like that?”
“Ma, I’m so tired of you and Pa thinking everything Eph does is so good. Maybe not you so much, but in Pa’s eyes, he can’t do anything wrong. Y’all act like I can’t do anything except hang around the house. I just thought if I could do something big on my own, it would make me feel better and this is what I did.”
“Honey, you did wrong and I believe you’re gonna get in big trouble over it.”
“Please don’t say anything to Pa about it, Ma. I’ll try to work something out, but please don’t tell anyone, especially Pa.”
“Okay,. But I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Jake hid the gold in the barn under some old trunks and stuff. No one ever went near that area except to pile on more old junk to be stored.
For the next couple years Jake felt good about his life. He and Eph were even getting along a little better than usual. Things were going smoothly until the day Eph had to go to Bradon. Ike wanted him to go over there to look at some livestock.
When Jake heard that, his heart nearly stopped. Panic set in. “What am I going to do? He decided to offer to go himself on the pretense that he just wanted to help out his brother. “Pa, why don’t you let me go to Bradon for you? I don’t have too much to do right now and Eph’s busy on the new barn. Why don’t you let me go?”
Ike smiled at that. “Son, that’s nice of you, but I’m not sure you would know the difference between a cow and a goat. No, I had better send Eph. This job requires someone who really knows their business when it comes to livestock, and I’m happy to say there aren’t many better than Eph.”
Jake spent the next few hours trying to come up an excuse to keep Eph away from Bradon, but nothing logical came to mind.
Eph got up the next morning, had breakfast with his mother and got an early start on his trip. Jake tried to convince himself Eph would be so busy with their pa’s business he wouldn’t have time to visit the property, but deep down he knew Eph would go by, since he would be so close.
Eph’s father was very proud of him. No matter how hard he tried to show love equally to both sons, it was clear he loved him more than he did Jake and Jake felt that.
Eph was popular with the other young men his age, and the young ladies all seemed to notice him. His thick red hair was appealing to them. He didn’t try to encourage their attention, but he didn’t discourage it either. He dated some, but not a lot. He didn’t have a steady girlfriend.
Most of his time was spent outside. He never had a gun, but he was an expert hunter honing his skills with the bow and arrow until the bow became almost an extension of his arm. He could kill a deer easier than any of his buddies and his ability to do things with a knife was amazing.
From time to time he would ask Jake to go hunting or fishing with him, but Jake always found an excuse to not go. Sometimes, when Jake would refuse Eph’s invitation, Eph would call him “mama’s boy” or “sissy” and tease him. That only kindled Jake’s resentment.
Ike loved to eat wild game and Eph made sure his dad was never without some. He saw to it there was always venison available as well as buffalo. Rabbits and squirrels were frequent dishes along with just about anything else that roamed wild.
When Eph wasn’t out hunting, he was usually working on a project outdoors. He would build things, or chop firewood or anything else he could find to do outside. This greatly pleased his pa and their bond was very strong.
After a couple days in Bradon, Eph started home, a man on a mission. The journey seemed to never end. Finally, spotting his house, he spurred his horse on. Jumping off his horse, he hit the ground running. “Where’s Jake?” he yelled to his mother as he entered the house. He was in such a rage he was shaking all over.
“In his room.” She’d never seen Eph so upset. His demeanor frightened her. Wondering what was wrong, she followed him to Jake’s room.
Charging into Jake’s room he didn’t say a word when he saw him. In a split second he hit Jake flush in the face, breaking his nose. Blood squirted everywhere. Eph jumped on top of him, beating him unmercifully and shouting, “I’m gonna kill you for what you did, Jake.”
“Ma and Pa might be blind to your sneaky ways, but I’m not. I’ve overlooked your sorry life ever since you were little, but this is too much. I’m gonna take everything you have – starting with your miserable life.”
After the first two or three blows, Jake was out cold and couldn’t hear anything, but Eph kept ranting as he pummeled Jake’s face
Becky was screaming and trying to pull Eph off, but he was too strong.
Ike heard the racket and came running, and he, too, was unable to get Eph off Jake. Finally, two of their workers came in and between all of them they were able to pull Eph away. He was like a madman. He was shaking and they could see the rage in his eyes.
While Ike and the two hired men held on to Eph, Becky tried to minister to Jake. Eph kept trying to get at Jake and kept yelling, “I’m going to kill you, you thieving snake. I’m going to kill you.” It was a terrible situation.
Becky was just beside herself as she looked at her baby and tried to clean him up. Jake was out cold, so Becky sat in the floor and cradled his head in her lap. She blotted his bloody face with a warm, wet rag and applied as much pressure as she dared to his broken nose. All the while she kissed and whispered to him, even though he couldn’t hear her.
Ike was a little calmer about the whole thing, thinking that Eph would soon cool off and things would get back to normal. Of course, at that point neither knew why Eph had gone so crazy. Becky thought about the Bradon land deal, but didn’t say anything.
Just to be safe, Ike had his men stay in the house the rest of the day with instructions to absolutely not let Eph get near Jake. Eph was still saying he was going to kill him.
Later that afternoon, Ike spoke to Eph. “Son, what got into you to make you whip your brother like you did? I’ve never seen anything like it. When you calm down some, I think we need to talk. Eph, I’m asking you to not go after Jake again, if for no other reason, it upsets me and your ma and you know how your ma is. This has about made her sick.”
Nobody was hungry for supper. Becky was so upset she probably couldn’t cook anyway. If anybody got hungry, they could find something to eat in the kitchen without any problem.
Eph went down to the creek with a fishing pole to try to cool off some, and the two hired hands went on back to the bunkhouse. Eph couldn’t seem to get in the mood to fish when he got to the creek and didn’t even gather any bait. He just sat on the creek bank, thinking.
When Eph came back up to the house, Ike and Becky asked him to sit down and tell them what was going on.
Eph didn’t say anything for several seconds and then started telling what happened in Bradon. “Pa, do you remember me telling you about a man named Gerald Hall? He was the man that wanted the land I bought from Don Payne. Remember?” Ike said he did. “Well I ran into him at the Bradon stock sale the other day and he told me how sorry he was that I had to sell my land, but he was sure glad that I chose him to sell it to. I asked him what he was talking about and he told me an unbelievable story.”
“He told me about Jake coming to him with papers saying I was overextended and was having a hard time, financially. Jake told Gerald I was too embarrassed to face anyone about it and I had asked him to see him for me. He had with him a bill of sale, power of attorney papers, and the deed to my land. All those papers were forged, and he must have stolen the deed out of my room.”
“Pa, I really wanted that land. I worked hard, saved my money, and felt really lucky to get it, and then my low-down brother stole it from me. Gerald said he paid Jake in gold the amount I paid for the property. I’ve got to find out if Jake still has it, and if he does, where it is. I may have to beat it out of him. I’ll tell you this Pa, this is not over by a long shot.”
Ike said, “Son, if what you’re telling us is true, then I can see how you would be so mad, but Jake is your brother and you’re gonna have to try and work something out with him. I don’t know what at this point, but you can’t attack him again. That’s not going to help anything. It’s hard to believe Jake could do this to his own brother.”
Becky told him, “Eph, you nearly killed Jake. How could you do that to your brother. I know he did wrong, but he’s still your brother.”
“Ma, you keep him away from me.”
It was hard to tell which disturbed Ike and Becky most – the fight or what Jake did. It seemed that Jake’s deed bothered Ike more than the fight. Of course, Becky knew all along about the land deal.
They asked each other, “What are we going to do about this?” After what would have been suppertime, they went out on the porch and talked. They threw some thoughts out to each other and finally decided that it would be best to have Jake leave for a while until things cooled down.
“Ike, do you remember my cousin, Josiah Taylor over in Mercer? Maybe we could send Jake over there to stay until Eph gets over this. What do you think?”
“I think that might be a good idea, but first, we have to get the gold back from Jake, if he still has it. Eph will never cool off if he doesn’t get it back. Since you’re closer to Jake than I am, you find out where it is and be sure you get it back.”
Unbeknownst to everybody but Jake, Becky knew exactly where the gold was. She told him what she and his pa had decided, and to get the gold from the barn.
Jake protested. “Ma, I shouldn’t have to give that gold back to Eph. I think I deserve to keep it. I earned it when he beat me up. I’m gonna keep it.”
But Becky prevailed and he went to the barn. When he came back to the house, he only had one bag instead of the two. “Ma, here’s one bag. I’m gonna tell Pa and Eph that I spent the rest.”
They argued about it, but Becky finally relented and went along with his lie.
The next morning Ike sent Eph into town to pick up supplies. Such a trip normally took at least half a day, and of course, Ike knew it. The trip was just an excuse to get Eph out of the way until Jake left.
As soon as Eph left for town, Becky and Jake packed his things. Writing a letter to her cousin, she introduced Jake and asked if he could stay with his family for a little while.
Before he left, Jake went to the barn and got the other sack of gold. Then, when Ike gave him a sizeable amount of cash to last him until he could find a job, he really did have a large sum of money.
Not saying a thing about having the gold. He just took the money and said, “Thank you Pa.” He shook his pa’s hand and hugged him. Then he hugged and kissed his mother, and mounted up. Heading east, he rode in the opposite direction from Eph.
About dinnertime, Eph returned from town. His mood seemed a little better, but he didn’t have much to say. If he noticed that his brother was gone, he didn’t let on, going about his business as always.
A short time later, Ike caught up to him. “Since things are so volatile right now between you and your brother, me and your ma, and Jake felt like he should leave for a while. Son, I think it will be best if you don’t know where he is going, so please don’t ask me or your ma to tell you.”
Eph replied, “That’s fine with me. I don’t want to know, and I don’t care where the little lowlife is going. I just hope he stays gone.”
Bud Fussell was born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee and moved to Mount Airy, North Carolina in 1967, where he currently lives. He is 76 years old and has been married to his high school sweetheart, Jane Ward, for 57 years. Bud and Jane have 3 sons, 7 grandsons, 2 great-grandsons, and one great-granddaughter. He is retired after spending many years in the apparel and hosiery industries. In addition to his new-found love of writing, Bud loves to hunt and fish.