The People Catcher: Mr. Woolfolk's Bounty by Breena Clarke

I let her call herself Cleary. She'd given the name to the child. She called him John Cleary. She was a sweet gal and she risked her life for me and the boy was mine. He was a cute little bastard. Ought to have seen him sucking his Mama's tit like he was the prince of Russia.

I let her keep him because she gave me information that I needed. I didn't dump her butt like I could have when she confessed it to me. I'd said, "No babies, bitch, make sure of it." But she risked her body and soul on my account so I relented.

She was a nigger and the boy is a bit less a nigger, but brushed. He looks it. He makes a good-looking bastard though. He was a cheerful baby. He giggled with exuberance when he was tickled and kissed. The frizzy hair on his head was spongy to the hand. I never imagined a nigger's head felt so soft. His hair is reddish brown colored like mine and he has a similar spray of freckles on his face though they are set in a browner skin.

I knew she had another name before she came to me. It was there on the paper presenting the terms and reward. They called her Sally. This was a very common name and often meant nothing to the negresses themselves. I called her Bonnie and my Bonnie liked her new name. She called herself Bonnie Cleary. I ought to have objected though it was the custom that niggers took the name of the master they belonged to. I didn’t let her say she was my wife or regular woman though. I’d have punished her if I caught her saying that to anyone.

I came upon her in the same way that I came across all of the others. I was tracking her for a bounty. The reward offered was handsome. I realized why the owner offered so much when I saw her. She was fancy.

I recovered her easy -- my Bonnie. She was weak and nearly starved to death in the spot where she was abandoned by the cock she'd left her master's place with. One of the main reasons women are easier to capture is that they don't stand hunger as well as men. They faint on the wrong street. They appeal to the wrong person. They weaken and start to whine and get dumped when they become more trouble to take than to leave. She practically fell into my hands. I paid a tip to my informant in Port Deposit, Maryland who saw her scratching at some old lady's back door.

I restrained Bonnie's wrists initially, then let her loose. I could see that she would not resist and she did, of course, need her hands to eat. She was in an urgent need of food when I grabbed her. I found an old woman to feed and nurse her and coax her back to life. The bounty would hardly have been paid on her condition. Nearly dead doesn't pay out. They discharged strictly on the basis of marketable condition when the goods were presented unless you were on the heels of somebody that was wanted dead or alive. Slaves hardly ever were. Slave women were always wanted back alive and not too badly ruined.

After five days I retrieved her from the old nurse who, acting as my agent, took the necessary steps to restore her vigor and prevent her escape. We left the town and headed south toward the auction house in Richmond. On the first night, she begged me not to return her to her master. She told me about his cruelties. I got sick to my stomach after a while and I slapped her across the face to silence her. I felt a rise of pity though. I'd seen the man.

She convinced me not to take her back to Woolfolk, who'd sent me on the hunt, who'd agreed to pay the bounty. She was persuasive. I forfeited the bounty to have her. I kept telling them that I couldn't find her. 

I called her Bonnie because she was pretty and gentle and compliant. Her eyes were big, brown shoe buttons fringed with sable lashes and they could make your mouth water. She was small in stature and perfectly, delightfully well-formed with Woolfolk's brand on her buttock that looked like a mayapple.

She became my Bonnie and she followed me and did my bidding. Was she free? There wasn’t that much free for colored women. She was free to starve like she was when I found her. She was better off with me and she knew it. She took care of my things and prepared my food. If I took a bed for the night I brought her into it. I allowed her to ride beside me on the wagon seat sometimes or lie in the bed of it if she was tired or feeling poorly.

I had found her easily. I found them all easily. I specialized and was widely known for recovering females and children for bounty. I recovered mostly slave females and their slave children. I had a knack for flushing them and bagging them. It was a service. I placed advertisements.

James Cleary captures, inquire at Franklin and Armfield, Richmond, Va.

The auction house was my base of operations though I pursued mostly above the Mason-Dixon line. It was a detecting service. I liked tracking people. I liked to figure out where they were going and follow their trail. I hunted for women and children because it was easier and faster. I asked the "wanter" person a lot of questions. I took down facts. Which way was they likely headed? Have they got people in another town? Is she running to be with her mama or her man or her children? Is she toting her children? Did she take all the pickneys that she's got? Can you get any information out of the folks she left behind? Did she leave with a man? Is she known to use a knife or conjuring? How does she tie her head? What clothes are missing?

Woolfolk gave me plenty of information. He knew his Sally well. He didn't ask me to sit down while he reeled off her description. Woolfolk told me about the brand, a mayapple picture. He said a mayapple was a small flower that his mother loved and he had a brand made like it and burned it on all his slaves. I wanted to spit then, between my feet, on his fancy rug, on his polished floor, but I swallowed and listened.

I grabbed her up and looked for the brand. I took her in an alley, pushed up her skirts and pulled down her bloomers to see it. It's lovely and I got scared of the distraction so I only looked to note it, then dumped out her pockets and squeezed on her vespers to check for a hidden knife. I shackled her wrists. When I saw the true starving state of her, I unshackled her and took her to the nurse.

Don't ask me why I didn't take Bonnie back to Samuel Woolfolk and get my money. She was pretty, but not the only pretty dark woman in the world. So why not? I know about Woolfolk. I even hesitated to take the commission. Woolfolk's a woman-torturer I've heard.

I threatened her regularly by saying that the commission was still open. I said I could take her back to him and have some bounty. I said I had letters from him and wouldn’t answer them as long as she behaved me. I would never have taken her back to Woolfolk though. I'd rather a dropped her off at a town somewheres and abandoned her than take her back there.

I was systematic. I ran a strict business. I wasn’t no liquored up asshole out to catch slaves for fun. I was a hunter that captured and returned people who was on the books as owned by somebody that wanted them back. I traced them. I captured them and dragged them back to the person who would pay the bounty.

I had the restraining chains and shackles I needed. I was not a fool and I was not a brute. I was required to restrain my captures while they were being taken back for the bounty. I couldn’t risk getting overpowered. I used laudanum to gentle out those ones that were hysterical and liable to harm themselves. If the fleeing gal was with a man or somebody else, I waited and separated them out and took them off without a lot of fighting.

When it was a mother and her babies, I’d grab up her pickneys first if I could. Then she had to make a decision to run or leave them. I’d hurt the pickneys to make them cry and call out to her if she seemed about to bolt. I’d shackle her. I’d put a rope or chain on the children, too, if they were old enough to bolt.

I did, on two occasions, recover white women for a husband bent on keeping his wife from taking his children. I was persuaded because there was a good bit of bunce in it. A white woman I traced to the town of Rising Son, running off with her two small boys, tried to resist me. I hesitated to slap a white woman quiet in public for fear that someone might intervene. Instead I grabbed her two boys and squeezed their arms behind and tied them. The two squirts screamed and she came along without protest. I kept the boys yoked up for the rest of the trip and their father complained. I suggested that he take it out on the bitch. It was her that ran and her that tried to resist coming back.

Most of the women I captured for bounty were dark women wanted as escapees from slavery, ones that had extricated themselves from a white man's pocketbook and were on the run alone or with children. I sent Bonnie among the colored people in certain towns when I was tracking a bounty. I'd question her about what folks she saw and what things she'd heard. At first she didn't want to do it, but I threatened to slice her nipples off and sell her south if she didn't. I'm certain it did not bother her too much. All I did was make her more frightened to disobey me than do as I ordered though one particular capture upset her greatly. When she learned what happened to a preacher woman we caught and handed over, she heaved her guts for two days. I thought she was with a child then, but she was just ill at realizing what we had caused. She heard from somebody that the preacher woman lost her tongue and was beaten to death.

I told her, “Once we hand 'em over, we ain't responsible for what happens to 'em.”

Sometimes I had Bonnie to pull a gal aside for a talk and then I took the gal up with little fuss. They were shocked at first, but when they realized what Bonnie had done their heart sunk.

I didn't let Bonnie, a mulatto, talk to the captures. I didn't want her over-powered by a clever, all-African amazon wanting to be free or die. When I was handling them, she withdrew to take care of the animals and my sleeping place and my food. At most of the taverns, I locked up my prisoners in their cells, shared vittles with Bonnie and reveled in a soft bed.

Bonnie suffered about her betrayals. She cried and, though I am accustomed to wailing women, her crying annoyed me. I reminded her that she ate everyday because I was in the business of catching these mewling gals that had escaped from slavery. I returned them for the money. I told her I'd take her back to Woolfolk and get a far fatter bounty than some other gal would bring.

Of course she would stop crying then. I was often tempted to hug her close and assure her that I would never take her back to Woolfolk, but I didn’t want her ever to think she could win me over with tears. 

I hope John Cleary will have his mother's gentle nature and, with my civilizing blood, will be a clever and industrious colored man.

I usually didn't fuck my captures. It seemed like an avoidable risk. Why chance getting knifed in the gut by some of these bitches? It is a fact that many of them are armed. Negresses like knives. They often had hidden weapons and some were willing to kill not to be taken up. So you had to restrain them.

I don't like to fuck restrained women. It makes my jasper shrink if the truth were told. I don't like a lot of rough stuff generally. I am a peaceable boy. I like to bill and coo. To subdue an unwilling woman you got to do a lot of rough, mean things that thwart the pleasure for me. And yet there are some men that like it just that way above all.

But traders won't pay out a reward -- at least won't give the full amount --if the merchandise is mangled from abuse. They want them back in marketable condition. I provided that. I conducted a decent business where it was understood that I would preserve the value of the merchandise.

Another reason you didn't want to fuck captures was that you wouldn't want to fall prey to any evil practices. I don't believe in superstitions, but if they had their head tied a certain way or their description said they'd come up from the sugar islands, I stripped off all of the clothes they was wearing and gave them another dress and I locked up their wrists quickly to be sure I wasn’t conjured, so they didn't throw any powders on me before I dumped out their pockets.

I was not cruel, but I had to get control right away so nobody was hurt. I handled them rough at first to frighten them. I yelled at them and pushed them about. Women who are standing cold and naked with piss running down their legs from fright usually agree to behave quietly if I unlock their wrists and allow them to dress. Some refused to comply and I had to undress and dress them forcibly while keeping their hands tied. I never took my captures through the street unclothed.

Bonnie wasn't going to knife me. She was too much a coward for that. If I raised my hand toward her she backed away and complied with whatever I asked. She didn't even stand her ground and seem to consider whether she would give way. If I raised my hand to stroke her cheek, she always flinched before yielding. Once I took a chance by using her to lure a man. I was tracking a big, dangerous nigger because I was persuaded by the size of the reward. He was easy enough to locate, but he promised to be trouble to capture.

I thought if Bonnie got his attention and put him off his game, I could club him senseless and shackle him. I had her to sashay into the colored tavern and try to lure him out to the barn behind. She caught his eye of course. She was a head-turner. She hadn't wanted to do it, but I made her do it with threats. She led him away and I came up behind and whacked him.

He was a dangerous brute. He wouldn't go down. Even after two good cracks with my truncheon, he was still sensible. He looked at me and then looked at Bonnie. Disgust widened his nostrils to their limit. He made up his mind to throttle Bonnie. I saw it in his eyes and I had to shoot him in the head to stop him. 

I didn't get a bounty on that nigger and came close to getting in a pother about shooting him. The man that was hunting him tried to bring a case against me for recklessness. I lost money. I had to see that Bonnie got a new dress because his blood shot out all over her clothes. She was a good girl. I gave her two new dresses.   

Shortly after that, we had a loll at the ocean in Cape May. I took a small bungalow. I didn't ask her to work in the town though I reminded her to keep her ears open in the market. We ate oysters in great quantities and crabs and other sea fish. I'm certain baby John got started when we were enjoying ourselves.

Bonnie wanted to feather a nest for the little son of a gun. I could tell. She started fussing about my comfort and trying to make me swoon over the boy. She was so very compliant and pleasing to me. I was leery of her. 

When I prepared to go out on a new commission, she bundled up the child and all her necessaries and accompanied me. I used her and the baby as I'd done before with her alone. I sent her into colored enclaves and she gathered information. She would lure a softhearted woman out to a barn with a story about being abandoned and sold off and running to keep the child safe, then I'd shackle the woman and take her up.

Claiming the bounty - Woolfolk’s bounty - was meant to give John Cleary a legacy she said. She worked it out that if I gave her back to Woolfolk, the bounty he'd pay would be a guarantee that John Cleary could be free and educated and have a good start. Bonnie wanted to guarantee her John's freedom. She concocted a scheme to buy a freedom for John Cleary with herself - the only way to make it certain she thought.

It don’t say too much about what she thought of me. I suppose I went too far in threatening her and taunting her. It got to the point she annoyed me greatly. She complained that traveling about caused her to be ill. I answered that I would leave her and she followed me each time I packed up. I got irritable and I took to saying she was worth more if she went back to Woolfolk. I boasted that I could be rich if I chose not to bother with her. I was very peeved once and showed her a stack of letters I said were from Woolfolk. Actually there had only been one letter -- a query about her and a threat to sue. (He'd got wind that I found her.) I showed her a false stack to worry her into silence.

I even said that I'd take the baby and sell him away from her if she gave me trouble. I feel ashamed of myself for that. I would never have done that, but I said it to her several times. I could see the effect on her poor little heart. She never left me alone with him. I knew it was because she thought I might really sell him. Of course he was far too young to have real value, but negresses can be quite hysterical after they've birthed a child. They are preternaturally afraid of being separated and often spoil a child until it is lazy.

I swear before all the saints in heaven that it was her idea to go back and collect the bounty from Woolfolk. She figured the money would make her John a successful, educated, free man. She said that was all she wanted for her life. She wanted John Cleary to be free and steady in the world.

"Bitch," I said, "You have a lifetime of babies before you. Why sacrifice yourself for this one?"

She made me swear solemnly. She made me cut my arm and warrant it and she spilled whiskey and muttered oaths. She promised to come back and hex me if I didn't do as I swore, then she dusted me with voodoo powder.

I could not raise my arms to slap her. Such was the effect of the voodoo powder. She then maneuvered me into making an offer to Woolfolk that he accepted. Of course, he did not pay in full.

I planned to hire someone to break her away from Woolfolk. Money is money and she deserved to be free. John Cleary needed his mama.

When she was back in Woolfolk's custody and the bounty was paid to me, she swallowed poison and died. She never told me she planned to do that. I never dreamed she was going to do that. It just goes to show how unpredictable are negro women. If I'd known, I never would have gone through with it.

After she died on him, Woolfolk tried to claim John Cleary when he learned about him. I told the sonofabitch I'd gouge out his two eyes if he ever put a finger on John Cleary. He only tortures women, so he doesn't scare me.

I did not take John Cleary into my own home, but I have seen that he is looked after. I have given him protection. I'm proud to say that he has not gone hungry and he has not spent one single day in slavery. I intend to see that he is taught sufficient to his station and color. As a mulatto, he is a rung above the all-African negroes. I will give him his inheritance as I promised his mother. I can still feel the slight raise of skin on the place she cut me. I will not tempt her to hex me.

Someday John will build a nice business with his money, Woolfolk's bounty on his mother. I think John Cleary will be a very successful colored man.

Contributor Notes

Breena Clarke's debut novel, River, Cross My Heart, was an October 1999 Oprah Book Club selection. Ms. Clarke, a native of Washington, D.C., is the recipient of the 1999 award for fiction by the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association and the Alex Award, given by the Young Adult Library Services Association.

Breena, who has survived the death of her only child, writes with depth and clarity about grief. Her work is marked by compassion and magnificent use of language. Fascinated by the vast array of small and insignificant objects that contain finely detailed denigrating images of African-Americans, Breena is a passionate collector of Black Memorabilia.

A graduate of Howard University, Breena Clarke is the author of“Stand the Storm,” set in 19th century Washington, D.C. and most recently, “Angels Make Their Hope Here.” She is co-author with Glenda Dickerson of Remembering Aunt Jemima: A Menstrual Show, which is anthologized in Contemporary Plays by Women of Color and Colored Contradictions, An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Plays. Her short fiction is included in Black Silk, A Collection of African American Erotica, and Street Lights: Illuminating Tales of the Urban Black Experience. Her recollections of Washington, D.C. are included in Growing Up In Washington, D.C., An Oral History, published by The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

Breena credits having learned to swim fifteen years ago with changing her life. After completing a course of classes at New York's Asphalt Green Aqua Center, she has become a member of an aqua aerobics class, swims three times a week and practices Qi Gong.

Breena Clarke is on the board of A Room Of Her Own Foundation, is co-organizer of the Hobart Book Village Festival of Women Writers and is on the faculty of Stonecoast MFA University of Southern Maine.