Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

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Produced by David Widger from page images generously
provided by the Internet Archive


By Will N. Harben


A. C. McClurg & Co.






I am indebted to the publishers of The Century Magazine, Lippincott’s
Magazine, The Ladies Home Journal, Book News, The Black Cat, and to the
Bachelier Syndicate for the courteous permission to reprint the sketches
contained in this volume.


Dalton, Ga.


|Andrew Duncan and his wife trudged along the unshaded road in the
beating sunshine, and paused to rest under the gnarled white-trunked
sycamore trees. She wore a drooping gown of checked homespun, a
sun-bonnet of the same material, the hood of which was stiffened with
invisible strips of cardboard, and a pair of coarse shoes just from the
shop. Her husband was barefooted, his shirt was soiled, and he wore
no coat to hide the fact. His trousers were worn to shreds about the
ankles, but their knees were patched with new cloth.

“I never was as thirsty in all my born days,” he panted, as he looked
down into the bluish depths of a road-side spring. “Gee-whilikins! ain’t
it hot?”

“An’ some fool or other’s run off with the drinkin’-gourd,” chimed in
his wife. “Now ain’t that jest our luck?”

“We ‘ll have to lap it up dog-fashion, I reckon,” Andrew replied,
ruefully, “an’ this is the hardest spring to git down to I ever seed.
Hold on, Ann; I ‘ll fix you.”

As he spoke he knelt on the moss by the spring, turned his broad-brimmed
felt hat outside in, and tightly folded it in the shape of a big dipper.
He filled it with water, and still kneeling, held it up to his wife.
When their thirst was satisfied, they turned off from the road into
a path leading up a gradual slope, on the top of which stood a
three-roomed log cabin.

“They are waitin’ fer us,” remarked Duncan. “I see ‘em out in the
passage. My Lord, I wonder what under the sun they ‘ll do with Big
Joe. Ever’ time I think of the whole business I mighty nigh bu’st with
laughin’.” Mrs. Duncan smiled under her bonnet.

“I think it’s powerful funny myself,” she said, as she followed after
him, her new shoes creaking and crunching on the gravel. To this
observation Duncan made no response, for they were now in front of the

An old man and an old woman sat in the passage, fanning their faces with
turkey-wing fans. They were Peter Gill and his wife, Lucretia.

The latter rose from her chair, which had been tilted back against the
wall, and with clattering heels, shambled into the room on the right.

“I reckon you’d ruther set out heer whar you kin ketch a breath o’ air
from what little’s afloat,” she said, cordially, as she emerged, a
chair in either hand. Placing the chairs against the wall opposite her
husband, she took a pair of turkey-wings from a nail on the wall and
handed them to her guests, and with a grunt of relief resumed her seat.
For a moment no one spoke, but Duncan presently broke the silence.

“Well, I went an’ seed Colonel Whitney fer you,” he began, his blue eyes
twinkling with inward amusement. “An’, Pete Gill, I’m powerfully afeerd
you are in fer it. As much as you’ve spoke agin slave-holdin’ as a
practice, you’ve got to make a start at it. The Colonel said that you
held a mortgage on Big Joe, an’ ef you don’t take ‘im right off you won’t
get a red cent fer yore debt.”

“I’m prepared fer it,” burst from Mrs. Gill. “I tried my level best to
keep Mr. Gill from lendin’ the money, but nothin’ I could say would have
the least influence on ‘im. The Lord only knows what we ‘ll do. We are
purty-lookin’ folks to own a high-priced, stuck-up quality nigger.”

The two visitors exchanged covert glances of amusement.

“How did you manage to git caught?” Andrew asked, crushing a subtle
smile out of his face with his broad red hand.

Peter Gill had grown quite red in the face and down his wrinkled,
muscular neck. As he took off his brogans to cool his feet, and began
to scratch his toes through his woolen socks, it was evident to his
questioner that he was not only embarrassed but angry.

“The thousand dollars was all the money we was ever able to save up,” he
said. “I was laying off to buy the fust piece o’ good land that was on
the market, so me ‘n the ol’ ‘oman would have a support in old age. But I
didn’t see no suitable farm just then, an’ as my money was lyin’ idle
in the bank, Lawyer Martin advised me to put it out at intrust, an’ I
kinder tuck to the notion. Then Colonel Whitney got wind o’ the matter
an’ rid over an’ said, to accommodate me, he’d take the loan. He fust
give me a mortgage on some swampy land over in Murray, that Martin said
was wuth ten thousand, an’ it run on that way fur two yeer. The fust
hint I had of the plight I was in was when the Colonel couldn’t pay the
intrust. Then I went to another lawyer, fer it looked like Martin an’
the Colonel was kinder in cahoot, an’ my man diskivered that the lan’
had been sold long before it was mortgaged to me for taxes. My lawyer
wasn’t no fool, so he got Whitney in fer a game o’ open-an’-shut
swindle. He up an’ notified ‘im that ef my claim wasn’t put in good
shape in double-quick time, he was goin’ to put the clamps on somebody.
Well, the final upshot was that I tuck Big Joe as security, an’ now that
the Colonel’s entire estate has gone to flinders, I’ve got the nigger
an’ my money’s gone.”

Duncan waited for the speaker to resume, but the aspect of the case
was so disheartening that Gill declined to say more about it. He simply
hitched one of his heels up on the last rung of his chair and began to
fan himself vigorously.

“I did as you wanted me to,” said Duncan, wiping his brow and combing
his long, damp hair with his fingers. “I went round an’ axed the opinion
o’ several good citizens, an’ it is the general belief ef you don’t
take the nigger you won’t never git back a cent o’ yore loan. But the
funniest part o’ the business is the way Big Joe acts about it.” Dun can
met his wife’s glance and laughed out impulsively. “You see, Gill,
in the Whitney break-up, all the other niggers has been sold to rich
families, an’ the truth is, Big Joe feels his dignity tuck down a good
many pegs by bein’ put off on you-uns, that never owned a slave to yore
name. The other darkies has been a-teasin’ of ‘im all day, an’ he’s sick
an’ tired of it. The Whitneys has spiled ‘im bad. They l’arnt ‘im to read
an’ always let ‘im stan’ dressed up in his long coat in the big front
hall to invite quality folks in the house. They say he had his eye on
a yaller gal, an’ that he’s been obliged to give her up, fer she’s gone
with one of the Staffords in Fannin’ County.”

Gill’s knee, which was thrust out in front of him by the sharp bend of
his leg, was quivering.

“Big Joe might do a sight wuss ‘n to belong to me,” he said, warmly. “I
don’t know as we-uns ‘ll have any big hall for ‘im to cavort about in, nur
anybody any wuss ‘n yore sort to come to see us, but we pay our debts an’
have a plenty t’eat.”

Mrs. Gill was listening to this ebullition, her red nose slightly
elevated, and she made no effort to suppress a chuckle of satisfaction
over her husband’s subtle allusion to the status of their guests.

“I want you two jest to come heer one minute,” she burst out suddenly,
and with a dignity that seemed to cool the air about her, she rose and
moved toward the little shed room at the end of the cabin. Duncan and
his wife followed, an expression of half-fearful curiosity in their
tawny visages. Reaching the door of the room, Mrs. Gill pushed it open
and coolly signaled them to enter, and when they had done so, and stood
mutely looking about them, she followed.

“When I made up my mind we’d be obliged to take Big Joe,” she explained,
“I fixed up fer ‘im a little. Look at that bedstead!” (Her hand was
extended toward it as steadily as the limb of an oak.) “Ann Duncan, you
are at liberty to try to find a better one in this neighborhood. You ‘n
Andrew sleep on one made out ‘n poles with the bark on ‘em. Then jest feel
o’ them thar feathers in this new tick an’ pillows, an’ them’s bran-new
store-bought sheets.”

This second open allusion to her own poverty had a subduing effect on
Mrs. Duncan’s risibilities. The ever-present twinkle of amusement went
out of her eyes, and she had an attitude of vast consideration for the
words of her hostess as she put her perspiring hand on the mattress and
pressed it tentatively.

“It’s saft a plenty fer a king,” she observed, conciliation enough for
any one in her tone; “he ‘ll never complain, I bound you!”

“Big Joe won’t have to tech his bare feet to the floor while he’s
puttin’ on his clothes, nuther,” reminded Mrs. Gill. She raised her
eyebrows as an admiral might after seeing a well-directed shot from one
of his guns blow up a ship, and pointed at a piece of rag carpet laid at
the side of the bed. “An’ you see I’ve fixed ‘im a washstand with a new
pan thar in the corner, an’ a roller towel, an’ bein’ as they say he’s
so fixy, I’m a-goin’ to fetch in the lookin’-glass, an’ I’ve cut some
pictur’s out ‘n newspapers that I intend to paste up on the walls, so
as - ”

Mrs. Gill paused. Experienced as she was in the tricks of Ann Duncan’s
facial expression, she at once divined that her words were meeting with
amused opposition.

“Why, Mis’ Gill,” was Ann’s rebuff, “shorely you ain’t a-goin’ to let ‘im
sleep in the same house with you-uns!”

“Of course I am, Ann Duncan; what in the name o’ common sense do you

“Oh, nuthin’.” Mrs. Duncan glanced at her husband and wiped a cowardly
smile from her broad mouth with her hand. “You see, Mis’ Gill, I’m
afeerd you are goin’ to overdo it. You’ve heerd me say I have good stock
in me, ef I am poor. I’ve got own second cousins that don’t know the’r
own slaves when they meet ‘em in the big road. I’ve heerd how they treat
their niggers, an’ I’m afeerd all this extra fixin’ up will make folks
poke fun at you. To-day in town the niggers started the laugh on Big
Joe theirselves, an’ the white folks all j’ined in. It looked like they
thought it was a good joke for the Gill lay-out to own a quality slave.
Me ‘n Andrew don’t mean no harm, but now it _is_ funny; you know it is!”

“I don’t see a thing that’s the least bit funny in it.” Mrs. Gill
bristled and turned almost white in helpless fury. “We never set
ourselves up as wantin’ to own slaves, but when this one is saddled on
us through no fault o’ our ‘n, I see no harm in our holdin’ onto ‘im till
we kin see our way out without loss. As to ‘im not sleepin’ in the same
cabin we do, whar in the Lord’s creation would we put ‘im? The corn-crib
is the only thing with a roof on it, an’ it’s full to the door.”

“Oh, I reckon you are doin’ the best you kin,” granted Mrs. Duncan, as
she passed out of the door and went back to where Peter Gill sat fanning
himself. He had overheard part of the conversation.

“I told Lucretia she oughtn’t to fix up so almighty much,” he observed.
“A nigger ain’t like no other livin’ cre’ture. A pore man jest cayn’t
please ‘em.”

Ann Duncan was driven to the very verge of laughter again.

“What you goin’ to call ‘im?” she snickered, her strong effort at
keeping a serious face bringing tears into her eyes. “Are you goin’ to
make ‘im say Marse Gill, an’ Mis’ Lucretia?”

“I don’t care a picayune what he calls us,” answered Gill, testily. “I
reckon we won’t start a new language on his account.”

Through this colloquy Mrs. Duncan had been holding her sun-bonnet in
a tight roll in her hands. She now unfurled it like the flag of a
switchman and whisked it on her head.

“Well, I wish you luck with yore slave,” she was heard to say, crisply,
“but I hope you ‘ll not think me meddlin’ ef I say that you ‘ll have
trouble. Folks like you-uns, an’ we-uns fer that matter, don’t know
no more about managin’ slaves raised by high-falutin’ white folks than
doodle-bugs does.” And having risen to that climax, Ann Duncan, followed
by her splay-footed, admiring husband, departed.

The next morning, accompanied by Big Joe and the man who had been
overseer on his plantation, Colonel Whitney drove over in a spring

“I decided to bring Joe over myself, so as to have no misunderstanding,”
he announced. “The other negroes have been picking at him a good deal,
and he is a little out of sorts, but he ‘ll get all right.”

The Gills were standing in the passage, a look of stupid embarrassment
on their honest faces. Despite their rugged strength of character, they
were not a little awed by the presence of such a prominent member of
the aristocracy, notwithstanding the fact that their dealings with the
Colonel had not, in a financial way, been just to their fancy.

“I’m much obliged to you, sir,” Peter found himself able to enunciate.

The Colonel lighted a cigar and began to smoke. A sad, careworn
expression lay in his big blue eyes. He had the appearance of a man who
had not slept for a week. His tired glance swept from the Gills to the
negro in the wagon, and he said, huskily:

“Bounce out, Joe, and do the very best you can. I hate to part with you,
but you know my condition - we’ve talked that over enough.”

Slowly the tall black man crawled out at the end of the wagon and stood
alone on the ground. The expression of his face was at once so full of
despair and fiendishness that Mrs. Gill shuddered and looked away from

“Well, Gill,” said the planter, “I reckon me and you are even at last.
I’m going down to Savannah, where I hope to get a fresh start and amount
to more in the world. Goodbye to you - good-bye, Joe.”

He had only nodded to the pair in the passage, but he reached over
the wagon-wheel for the hand of the negro, and as he took it a tender
expression of regret stamped itself on his strong features.

“Be a good boy, Joe,” he half-whispered. “As God is my heavenly judge,
I hate this more than anything else in the world. If I could possibly
raise the money I’d take you with me - or free you.”

The thick, stubborn lip of the slave relaxed and fell to quivering.

“Good-bye, Marse Whit’,” he said, simply.

The Colonel took a firmer grasp of the black hand.

“No ill-will, Joe?” he questioned, anxiously.

“No, suh, Marse Whit’, I hain’t got no hard feelin’s ‘gin you.”

“Well, then good-bye, Joe. If I ever get my head above water, I ‘ll keep
my promise about you and Liza. She looked on you as her favorite, but
don’t raise your hopes too high. I’m an old man now, and it may be
uphill work down there.”

The negro lowered his head and the overseer drove on. As the wagon
rumbled down the rocky slope a wisp of blue smoke from the Colonel’s
cigar followed it like a banner unfurled to the breeze. For several
minutes after the wagon had disappeared Big Joe stood where he had
alighted, his eyes upon the ground.

“What’s the matter?” asked Gill, stepping down to him.

“Nothin’, Marse - ” Big Joe seemed to bite into the word as it rose to
his tongue, then he shrugged his shoulders contemptuously and looked
down again.

The Gills exchanged ominous glaces, and there was a pause.

“Have you had anything to eat this morning?” Gill bethought himself to

The black man shook his head.

“I ain’t teched a bite sence dey sol’ me; dey offered it to me, but I
didn’t want it.”

Once more the glances of the husband and wife traveled slowly back and
forth, centering finally on the face of the negro.

“I reckon it’s ‘cause yore sick at heart,” observed Gill, at first
sympathetically, and then with growing firmness as he continued. “I know
how you feel; most o’ yore sort has a way o’ thinkin’ yorese’ves a sight
better ‘n pore white folks, an’ right now the truth is you can’t bear the
idee o’ belongin’ to me ‘n my wife. Now, me ‘n you an’ her ought to come
to some sort of agreement that we kin all live under. You won’t find
nuther one of us the overbearin’ sort. We was forced to take you to
secure ourse’ves agin the loss of our little all, an’ we want to do
what’s fair in every respect. I’m told you are a fust-rate shoemaker.
Now, ef you want to, you kin set up a shop in yore room thar, an’ have
the last cent you kin make. You ‘ll git plenty o’ work, too, fer this
neighborhood is badly in need of a shoemaker. Now, my wife will fry you
some fresh eggs an’ bacon an’ make you a good cup o’ coffee.”

But all that Peter Gill had managed to say with satisfaction to himself
seemed to have gone into one of the negro’s ears and to have met with
not the slightest obstruction on its way out at the other. To the
hospitable invitation which closed Peter’s speech, the negro simply

“I don’t feel like eatin’ a bite.”

“Oh, you don’t,” said Gill, at the end of his resources; “maybe you’d
feel different about it ef you was to smell the bacon a-fryin’.”

“I don’t wan’t to eat,” reiterated the slave. “Well, you needn’t unless
you want to,” went on Gill, still pacifically. “That thar room on the
right is fer you; jest go in it whenever you feel like it an’ try to
make yorese’f at home; you won’t find us hard to git along with.”

The Gills left their human property seated on a big rock in front of the
cabin and withdrew to the rear. There they sat till near noon. Now and
then Gill would peer around the corner to satisfy himself that his slave
was still seated on the rock. Gill chewed nearly a week’s allowance of
tobacco that morning; it seemed to have a sedative effect on his nerves.
Finally, Ann Duncan loomed up in the distance and strode toward the
cabin. She wore a gown of less brilliant tints than the one she had worn
the day before. It had the dun color of clay washed into rather than out
of its texture, and it hung from her narrow hips as if it were damp.

“Well, he _did_ come,” she remarked, introductively.

Mrs. Gill nodded. “Yes; the Colonel fetched ‘im over this mornin’.”

“So I heerd, an’ I jest ‘lowed I’d step over an’ see how you made out.”
Mrs. Duncan’s rippling laugh recalled the whole of her allusions of the
day previous. “Thar’s more talk goin’ round than you could shake a stick
at, an’ considerable spite an’ envy. Some ‘lows that the havin’ o’
this slave is agoin’ to make you stuck up, an’ that you ‘ll move yore
membership to Big Bethel meetin’-house; but law me! I can see that you
are bothered. How did he take to his room?”

“He ain’t so much as looked in yit,” replied Mrs. Gill, with a frown.

Thereupon Ann Duncan ventured up into the passage and peered cautiously
round the corner at Big Joe.

“He’sa-wipin’ of his eyes,” she announced, as she came back. “It looks
like he’s a-cryin’ about some ‘n’.”

At this juncture, a motley cluster of men, women, and children, led
by Andrew Duncan, came out of the woods which fringed the red, freshly
plowed field below, and began to steer itself, like a school of fish,
toward the cabin. About fifty yards away they halted, as animals do when
they scent danger. Heads up and open-mouthed, they stood gazing, first
at the Gills, and then at their slave. Peter Gill grew angry. He stood
up and strode as far in their direction as the ash-hopper under the
apple-tree, and raised both his hands, as if he were frightening away a
flock of crows.

“Be off, the last one of you!” he shouted; “and don’t you dare show
yorese’ves round heer unless you’ve got business. This ain’t no
side-show - I want you to understand that!”

They might have defied their old neighbor Gill, but the owner of a
slave so big and well dressed as the human monument on the rock was too
important a personage to displease with impunity; so, followed by the
apologetic Mrs. Duncan, who blamed herself for having set a bad example
to her curious neighbors, they slowly dispersed.

At noon Mrs. Gill went into the cabin and began to prepare dinner. She
came back to her husband in a moment, and in a low voice, and one that
held much significance, she said:

“I need some firewood.” As she spoke she allowed her glance to rest on
Big Joe. Gill looked at the sullen negro for half a minute, and then he
shrugged his shoulders as if indecision were a burden to be shaken off,
and mumbling something inaudible he went out to the woodpile and brought
in an armful of fuel.

“A pore beginning,” his wife said, as he put it down on the hearth.

“I know it,” retorted Gill, angrily. “You needn’t begin that sort o’
talk, fer I won’t stand it. I’m a-doin’ all I can.” And Gill went back
to his chair.

The good housewife fried some slices of dark red ham. She boiled a pot
of sweet potatoes, peeled off their jackets, and made a pulp of them in
a pan; into the mass she stirred sweet milk, butter, eggs, sugar, and
grated nutmeg. Then she rolled out a sheet of dough and cut out some
open-top pies.

“I never knowed a nigger that could keep his teeth out of ‘em,” she

Half an hour later she called out to Gill to come in. He paused in the
doorway, staring in astonishment.

“Well, I never!” he ejaculated.

She had laid the best white cloth, got out her new knives and forks with
the bone handles, and some dishes that were never used except on rare
occasions. She had placed Gill’s plate at the head of the table, hers
at the foot, and was wiping a third - the company plate with the blue

“Whar’s he goin’ to set an’ eat?” she asked.

“Blast me ef I know any more ‘n a rat,” Gill told her, with alarmed
frankness. “I hain’t thought about it a bit, but it never will do fer ‘im
to set down with me an’ you. Folks might see it, an’ it would give ‘em
more room for fun.”

Mrs. Gill laid the plate down and sighed.

“I declare, I’m afeered this nigger is a-goin’ to stick us up, whether
or no. I won’t feel much Christian humility with him at one table an’ us
at another, but of course I know it ain’t common fer folks to eat with
their slaves.”

Gill’s glance was sweeping the table and its tempting dishes with an
indescribable air of disapproval.

“You are a-fixin’up powerful,” was his slow comment; “a body would
think, to look at all this, that it was the fourth Sunday an’ you was
expectin’ the preacher. You’d better begin right; we cayn’t keep this up
an’ make a crop.”

Her eyes flashed angrily.

“You had no business to bring Big Joe heer, then,” she fumed. “You know
well enough he’s used to fine doin’s, an’ I’m not a-goin’ to have ‘im
make light of us, ef we _are_ pore. I was jest a-thinkin’; the Whitneys
always tied napkins ‘round the’r necks to ketch the gravy they drap, an’
Big Joe’s bound to notice that we ain’t used to sech.”

It was finally agreed that for that day at least the slave was to
have his dinner served to him where he sat; so Mrs. Gill arranged it
temptingly on a piece of plank, over which a piece of cloth had been
spread, and took it out to him. She found him almost asleep, but he
opened his eyes as she drew near.

Drowsily he surveyed the contents of the cups and dishes, his eyes
kindling at the sight of the two whole custards. But his pride - it was
evidently that - enabled him to manifest a sneer of irreconcilability.

“I ain’t a-goin’ t’eat a bite,” was the way he put it, stubbornly.

For a moment Mrs. Gill was nonplussed; but she believed in getting at
the core of things.

“Are you a-complainin’?” she questioned.

The big negro’s sneer grew more pronounced, but that was all the answer
he gave.

“Don’t you think you could stomach a bit o’ this heer custard pie?”

Big Joe’s eyes gleamed against his will, but he shook his head.

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