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Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

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business now,” he said. “It serves ‘im right fer bein’ so rampacious.”

“Law me! I never could git that much,” she said, and she held out her
hand for the pail, but he swung it down at his side. “I ‘ll tote it,” he
said; “I’m a-goin’ back to the house. I reckon I ‘ll put up thar fer the
night - that is, ef they ‘ll take me in.”

“I’ve jest been lookin’ at you an’ wonderin’,” she said, reflectively,
after they had passed through the bars. “My hearin’ an’ eyesight is
bad, an’ so is my memory of faces, but it seems like I’ve seed somebody
some’r’s that favors you mightily.”

He walked on silently. Only the little corn-patch was between them
and the group in the yard. He could hear Sanders’s drawling voice, and
caught a gleam of the kitchen fire through the alder-bushes.

“You better le’ me take the bucket,” she said, stopping abruptly and
showing some embarrassment. “Yo’ ‘re mighty gentlemanly; but Alf’s wife
al’ays gits mad when I make at all free with company. The whole family
pokes fun at me, an’ ‘lows I am childish, an’ too fond o’ talkin’. They
expect me jest to keep my mouth shet an’ never have a word to say.
It cayn’t be helped, I reckon, but it’s a awful way fer a old body to
live.”

“That’s a fact!” he blurted out, impulsively, still holding to the pail,
on which she had put her hand. “It’s the last place on earth fer you.”

“I hain’t had one single day o’ enjoyment sence I came here,” she
continued, encouraged to talk by his manifest sympathy. “I reckon I ort
to be thankful, an’ beggars mustn’t be choosers, as the feller said; fer
no other family in the county would take me in. But it hain’t no place
fer a old woman that likes peace an’ rest at my time o’ life. I work
hard all day, an’ at night I need sound sleep; but they put the children
in my bed, an’ they keep up a kickin’ an’ a squirmin’ all night. Then,
the’ ain’t no other old women round here, an’ I git mighty lonesome.
Sometimes I come as nigh as pease givin’ up entirely.”

“Thank the Lord, you won’t have to stand it any longer!” he exclaimed,
hotly.

She started from him in astonishment, and began to study his features.
At that juncture two of Sanders’s little girls drew near inquisitively.
“Here!” and he held the pail out to them. “Take this milk to yore
mammy.” One of them, half frightened, took the pail, and both scampered
back to the house.

“Yo’ ‘re a curi’s sort of a man,” she said, with a serious kind of
chuckle, as she drew her shawl up over her white head. “I wouldn’t ‘a’
done that fer a dollar. You skeered Sally out ‘n a year’s growth. I used
to have a boy, that went away West ten year ago, who used to fly up like
you do, an’ you sorter put me in mind of him, you do. He was the best
one I had. I could allus count on him fer help. He was as steady-goin’
as a clock. He never was heerd from, an’ the general belief is that he
died out thar.”

There was a moment’s pause. He seemed trying to think of some way to
reveal his identity. “You ortn’t to pay attention to everything you
hear,” he ventured, awkwardly. “Who knows? Mebby he’s still alive - sech
things ain’t so almighty oncommon. Seems like I’ve heerd tell o’ a
feller named Bradley out thar.”

“I reckon it wasn’t Jim,” she sighed. “It was my daily prayer fer a long
time that he mought come back, but thar ain’t no sech luck fer me. I’ve
done give up. I am a destitute, lonely woman, an’ I cayn’t stan’ all
this commotion an’ wrangle much longer. Ef I had him to work fer now,
I wouldn’t keer; I’d wear my fingers to the bone; but fer people that
ain’t no speck o’ kin an’ hain’t no appreciation fer what a body does
it’s different.” The corners of her mouth were drawn down, and she put
her thin hand up to her eyes.

“I don’t b’lieve you’d know ‘im ef you was to see ‘im,” he said,
laughing artificially and taking her hand in his.

She started. A shiver ran through her frame, and her fingers clutched
his convulsively. “What do you mean?” she gasped. “Oh, my Lord, what
does the man mean?”

“The’ ain’t much doubt in my mind that he’s alive an’ ort to have a
thousand lashes on his bare back fer neglectin’ his old mammy,” he said,
trying to hide the tremor in his voice.

A startled light of recognition dawned in her eyes and illumined her
whole visage. She stared at him with dilating eyes for an instant, and
then fell into his arms. “Oh, Jim, I declare I cayn’t stan’ it! It will
kill me! It will kill me!” she cried, putting her arms about his neck
and drawing his head down to her.

“I’m as glad as you are, mother,” he replied, tenderly stroking her
white hair with his rough hand; “no feller livin’ ever wanted to see his
mammy wuss.”

Then there seemed nothing further for either of them to say, and so
he led her on to the house and to the chair he had left a few moments
before.

“I’ve let the cat out ‘n the bag,” he said, shamefacedly, answering their
glances of inquiry. “I had to mighty nigh tell her point-blank who I
was.”

“I never ‘lowed I’d see ‘im ag’in,” Mrs. Bradley faltered, in a low,
tearful tone. “I am that thankful my heavenly Father let me live to this
day. I’d suffer it all over an’ over ag’in fer this joy.”

Sanders was silent, and his wife; and the children, barelegged and
dirty-faced, sat on the grass and mutely watched the bearded stranger
and his mother in childish wonder. Bradley said nothing, but he moved
his chair nearer to his mother’s and put his strong arm around her.
Sanders broke the silence.

“What have you been follerin’, Bradley?” he asked.

“Sellin’ goods.”

“Clerkin’ fer somebody?”

“No; had a ‘stablishment o’ my own.”

“You don’t say!” and Sanders looked at Bradley’s seedy attire and then
at his wife significantly.

“Yes; I made some money out thar. The night ‘fore I left, a feller
offered me ten thousand dollars in cash fer my stock o’ goods, an’ I tuk
‘im up. I didn’t wait to put on my Sunday clothes; these is the things I
worked in, handlin’ dirty groceries. I hain’t the pertic’lar sort. I’ve
got some bonds an’ rale estate that kin remain jest as well whar they
are at present. I’ve come back here to stay with mother. I couldn’t
stand it to be alone much longer, an’ I wouldn’t ax ‘er to move to a new
country at ‘er age.”

Sanders and his wife stared at him in astonishment. Mrs. Bradley
leaned forward and looked intently into his face. She was very pale and
quivered with new excitement, but she said nothing.

“My Lord, you’ve had luck!” exclaimed Sanders, thinking of something
to say finally. “What on earth are you gwine to invest in here, ef it
hain’t no harm to ax?”

“I ‘lowed I’d buy a big plantation. They are a-goin’ cheap these times,
I reckon. I want a place whar a livin’ will come easy, an’ whar I kin
make mother comfortable. She’s too old to have to lay ‘er hand to a
thing, ur be bothered in the least. I want to be nigh some meetin’-house
of her persuasion, an whar she kin ‘sociate with other women o’ her age.
I don’t expect to atone fer my neglect, but I intend to try my hand at
it fer a change.” Mrs. Bradley lowered her head to her son’s knee, and
began to sob softly. Then Mrs. Sanders got up quickly. “I smell my bread
a-burnin’,” she said. “I ‘ll call y’all into supper directly. We hain’t
pretendin’ folks, Mr. Bradley, but yo’ ‘re welcome to what we got. You
needn’t rise, Mrs. Bradley; I kin fix the table.”




THE SALE OF UNCLE RASTUS


|Aunt Milly’s cabin was brightly illuminated. Crude tallow dips in the
necks of cracked jugs and bottles spangled a dark clothless table, a
slanting heap of blazing logs filled the wide rock-and-mud chimney, and
a bonfire of pine knots at the “wash-place” near the door outside threw
a red light far down the road which led past a row of cabins to the
residence of Aunt Milly’s owner, Mr. Herbert Putnam.

The season’s crop of corn had been hauled up from the fields to the
cribs. Frost had come; persimmons were ripe, and Aunt Milly was going to
give the first opossum supper of the fall. Her two boys, Len and Cæsar,
had caught two fat opossums the night before, and she had dressed the
game and left it in a couple of pans out on the roof - “ter let de fros’
bite de wil’ taste out ‘n it en tender it up ‘fo’ bilin’ en bakin’.” She
had given this explanation to her husband, Uncle Rastus, who had been
irritated by her rising two or three times in the night “ter see ef dem
cats wuzn’t atter dat meat.”

Uncle Rastus was sick; he had taken a severe cold, which had settled
on his lungs and given him a cough. Hearing the negroes singing as they
came through the fields from the neighboring plantations, he left
his bed in the lean-to shed and hobbled slowly into the glare of
candlelight. He sniffed the aroma of coffee and baked meat and intently
surveyed the preparations his wife had made.

“I heer um - dat Nelse’s tenor en Montague’s bass; dey all comin’. I
never heer sech er racket!” As he spoke he put a quilt down on the floor
in the chimney-corner and lay down and pushed out his long bare feet to
the fire.

“I reckon I got my heerin’,” she replied, eying him reprovingly. “Look
a-heer, Rastus, who seh you might git up? You know you gwine hat er wuss
achin’ dan ever in yo’ ches’ ef you lie dar over dem cracks des atter
you got out ‘n dat warm bed.”

“Lemme ‘lone,” he said, in an offhand tone; “you reckon I ain’t gwine
be at yo’ ‘possum supper, en mebby it de las’ night on dis yer
plantation - huh?”

His words evoked no reply, for the guests were now near the door,
and she had advanced to meet them. Nelse and Montague, two tall, lank
negroes, slouched in and dropped their hats on the floor. They were
followed by Aunt Winnie and her husband and a crowd of negroes of all
ages and sizes. As the guests filed in at the door and huddled round the
fire and Rastus’s perpendicular feet, each put a silver quarter into a
bowl on the end of the table.

“I don’t ‘grudge you mine, Aunt Milly,” said Aunt Winnie, feelingly. “My
goodness, you is hat ernough trouble, wid yo’ marster bein’ so po’
en Une’ Rastus so sickly en y’all gwine be put up on de auction-block
ter-morrer en no idee whar you gwine nex’. How much y’ reckin you gwine
ter fetch, Aunt Milly?”

For reply Aunt Milly simply shrugged her fat shoulders as she went round
among her guests and took their bonnets and shawls, which she piled
promiscuously on a chest in the corner.

“She’s wuff all she ‘ll bring, I boun’ yer,” said Nelse, who was standing
almost astride of Rastus’s head. “As for me, Aunt Milly, I’d er sight
ruther be put up on de auction-block at de court-house dan ter be sol’
in er slave-mart. Dey hat me on sale in New Orleans fur two weeks han’
runnin’, settin’ bolt up in er long room wid er passel er niggers dey
call Cre-owls, en people constant er-lookin’ at me en axin’ my price.
Dey feed you on de fat er de lan’ en keep you dressed up, but you never
know is yer gwine ter be er ditch-digger ur somebody’s ca’ge-driver.
On de block it soon over en you know whar you gwine, en ef er nigger is
sharp he kin manage er li’l en git on de good side er some white man he
likes.”

“Marse Geo’ge Putnam ‘ll buy y’all, you know he will,” remarked Aunt
Winnie to Ras-tus, who had sat up on his quilt and been listening
eagerly to Nelse. “He ‘ll be on’y too glad er de chance ter spite Marse
Herbert en rake in some mo’ uv his paw’s old slaves. He already bought
up all de lan’ ‘cep’ de li’l patch Marse Herbert’s house stan’ on, en
now de house en dis yer fambly er niggers is all dat is lef’ fer ‘im ter
want. My white folks seh ten yeer ergo dat Marse Geo’ge never will res’
satisfied till his po’ brother is flat on his back destitute. Seem lak
he in his glory when he hear dat suppen o’ Marse Herbert’s is up fer
sale, so he kin buy it in. I hain’t never seed two sech brothers; dey
hain’t ‘change one word in ten yeer; en all kase ole Marse Putnam lef’
Marse Herbert de ol’ home place en want ‘im ter hol’ on ter it.”

Uncle Rastus looked up suddenly. His face was full of angles, and
his dark eyes flashed in the firelight. “I hope he won’t buy me,” he
grunted; “ef I cayn’t stay wid Marse Herbert, de younges’ en po’es’ er
ol’ marster’s chillun, I want ter go clean off ‘mongst strangers. Dis
_me_ er-talkin’!”

The pathos of this remark struck most of the listeners; but Montague,
who, for reasons of his own, disliked old Rastus, was unmoved by it.
“You needn’t trouble ‘bout whar _you_ gwine,” he said, with contemptuous
emphasis on the “you,” and he pushed a little black girl to one side
that he might watch the effect of his words on Rastus. “De won’t be any
big scramblin’ atter you; who want ter buy er nigger des ter git ter
bury ‘im dese hard times?”

“Be ershamed, Montague,” remonstrated Aunt Winnie; “be ershamed er
yo’se’f!”

“He ain’t got no raisin’!” blurted out Aunt Milly. “Unc’ Rastus ain’t
gwine ter listen ter dat black fool.”

“I des know what white folks seh, dat’s all,” insinuated Montague,
sullenly. “Marse Herbert come over ter see my marster ter-day, en
I heerd um talkin’ in de stable-yard. Marse Herbert ‘low he’d been
countin’ on payin’ off his pressin’ debt wid whut dis fambly er niggers
would fetch, en’d laid his plans ter hol’ on ter his house en go Wes’
en mek money ter pay de in_trust_ en lif’ de mortgage, but des den
Une’ Rastus, de mos’ valuables’ one, tuk sick, en now Aunt Milly an’ de
chillun won’t fetch ernough ter do much good.”

This announcement produced an impression. Aunt Milly was plainly too
much astonished even to protest against the brutality of the revelation.
Rastus took a fresh hold on his thin knees with his arms, coughed deeply
and painfully, and looked Montague straight in the eyes.

“Is you tellin’ de trufe?” he asked, “_Is_ you?”

“I hain’t no reason to tell you er lie, Unc’ Rastus.”

From that moment Montague had the contempt of the whole room. Aunt
Milly was evidently recompensed by this, for she simply looked into the
sympathetic faces around her and made no sound. Rastus lay back on his
quilt silently, and languidly thrust his feet back to the fire.

Aunt Milly’s voice sounded cold and equivocal in her effort to smother
her emotions when she said, “Well, come on, y’all, an’ git yo’ ‘possum
an’ biscuit ‘fo’ dey git co’.” The last words of her invitation were
drowned in the scrambling and shuffling of feet as the crowd surged
toward the table. A whole opossum embedded in a great heap of fried
sweet potatoes was placed by Len and Cæsar on each end of the long
table, and Aunt Milly followed them with a great bucket of coffee and
pans of smoking biscuits.

They were all seated and had begun the feast, when, to their
astonishment, Rastus rose and staggered to a vacant place at the end of
the table.

“Whar my ‘possum, Aunt Milly?” he demanded, with pretended pique. “On my
soul, I b’lieve you tryin’ ter lef’ me out.”

“Go back ter yo’ bed, Rastus,” she scolded, gently. “What kin got in
you? you ain’t eat nothin’ in er mont’ ‘cep’ er li’l soup en gravy, en
now you want ter founder yo’se’f on ‘possum meat.”

He shoved his plate impatiently toward her. “Gimme some er dem taters en
dat ‘possum. You heer me?”

“You too sick, Rastus,” protested Aunt Milly, with maternal
persuasiveness. “Go lie down, en I ‘ll fix you some er yo’ good soup.”

“I know I _wuz_ sick,” he replied; “but I want ter tell y’all, I ain’t
now; I’m cuored well en soun’.” As he spoke these words, accompanied by
a heroic attempt to hold himself erect in his chair, Aunt Milly recalled
the strange look of desperate determination that had possessed his face
when Montague had finished speaking, and she kept silent. Both sides of
the long table were curiously looking at the invalid. “I’m er li’l weak
yit, but I ain’t sick,” he went on, bracing himself with a thin hand
on each side of the table. “You know dat conjure doctor on de river
plantation? Well, he come by here dis mawnin’ ‘fo’ day, he did - des ez I
wuz gittin’ up ter git er armful er firewood, en - ”

“Why, you know dat ain’t so, Unc’ Ras-tus,” broke in Aunt Milly, “kase I
got up fus’ dis mawnin’, en you wuz soun’ ersleep.”

“‘Twuz long ‘fo’ you got up, Aunt Milly,” added the old man, glibly, as
he warmed up to his fiction. “Well, dat conjure doctor rode by de do’ on
er white hoss, he did, en seh to me, ‘Rastus, you sick, en you mus’ git
well ‘fo’ yo’ marster puts you up for sale, so you kin bring what you
is wuff ter he’p him out ‘n his scrape.’ En he up en ax me has I my
rabbit-foot erbout me, en I tuk it out ‘n my weskit pocket, en he seh,
‘Well, put it in de hot ashes in de back er de chimbly tell you hear
er dog bark, en den tek it out en wash it clean in spring-water, en den
keep it by you night en day,’ en when I done ez he tol’ me I got well.”

A chorus of wondering ejaculations rose from the superstitious
listeners, and for a moment opossum meat and potatoes were forgotten.
Aunt Milly looked at her husband tenderly. “Dat nigger would die fer
Marse Herbert,” she thought. “He dat sick now he cayn’t hol’ his haid
up; de sight er dat ‘possum meat is gaggin’ ‘im, but he ‘ll kill me ef I
let on.”

“I don’t want yo’ ol’ ‘possum meat,” said Rastus, rising and moving back
to the fire. “I’m gwine ter lie down an’ git rested up fer ter-morrer.
Ef dey ‘ll let me, I ‘ll dance er breakdown on dat auction-block en turn
one er my han’-springs.”

“He certny is cuored,” said Aunt Winnie, gladly. “Dese conjure doctors
beat de ol’ sort all ter pieces.”

The supper over, Aunt Milly slowly counted out her earnings and put them
away; the table was moved back against the wall; Nelse got out his bones
and began to play, and Len and Cæsar danced jigs till they sank to
the floor in exhaustion. After this, plantation songs were sung,
ghost-stories were told, and it was late when they went back to their
homes.

The following day was a fine one. The air was bracing, and the sun shone
brightly. The autumnal foliage had never appeared more beautiful; every
color in nature seemed lavished on the hills near by, and the mountains,
twenty miles away, blue as the skies in spring and summer, had faded
into a beautiful pink.

The court-house and auction-block were in a village two miles from the
plantations of the two Putnam brothers. Uncle Rastus and his family were
sent over in the wagon of Herbert Putnam’s overseer, and Lawyer Sill
came by in his buggy and drove Herbert to the sale.

“I thought I would stay away and let you attend to it for me,” said
Herbert Putnam; “but my daughter thinks I ought to go. Brother George
will be there to bid them in. He wouldn’t miss the opportunity to
humiliate me again for anything.”

“You ought to be on hand,” replied Sill, as the other got into the
buggy. “Your negroes worship you, and would feel hurt if you were
not present. Your brother has acted very badly, and has made himself
unpopular by it.”

“It was my father’s wish that I hold the home place, but George never
could forgive me for it. If he had advanced money to me, as he has to
total strangers, I should have paid out all right. He has a better head
for business than I have.”

A hundred wagons, buggies, and carriages were scattered over the
court-house common, the hitching-racks were hidden by mules and horses,
and a considerable crowd of people, white and black, were clustered
around the auction-block to the right of the court-house door, near
the massive log jail. In the edge of the crowd an old darky was selling
“ground-peas,” and his white-headed wife was threading her way through
the crowd, retailing hot gingerbread from a basket and fresh cider
from a capacious jug with a corncob stopper. In some of the carriages
elegantly dressed ladies sat; young men, the gallants among the
gentry of the county, with broad hats, and trousers in their bootlegs,
conversed with them from the backs of restive mettlesome horses.

Colonel George Putnam sat in his carriage with his wife and son, but
when his brother drove up with Lawyer Sill, he alighted and approached
his own lawyer, who was talking with a group of planters.

“Burton,” said he, in a low tone, “remember, you are to bid for me; I
don’t want to be conspicuous, but I will have those negroes. I don’t
want any of my father’s estate to go into the hands of strangers.”

“All right,” replied Burton; “we won’t have much trouble. Old man Staley
has thrown out some intimation that he intends to do some bidding, but
he’s afraid of his shadow, and when he sees you are in the fight he ‘ll
draw in his horns.”

“I don’t think so. Staley is no friend of mine, and will try to run the
price up on me out of spite. I looked over them a while ago as they came
up,” the colonel went on, glancing at the wagon in which Uncle Rastus
and his wife and sons were seated. “They all seem in pretty fair
condition except Rastus. He says he has had a little spell of fever, but
that he is all right now.”

“He is thin, but as sound as a dollar,” said Burton, lightly. “He jumped
out of the wagon just now as nimbly as a kitten and unhitched the mules
in a hurry. I told him I heard he had been sick, and he laughed and said
he could do more work than ten ordinary darkies.”

“Well, keep your eye on Staley. My brother has wasted everything my
father left him, and I owe it to our name to retain as many of our
old slaves as I can. You told me you would find out the amount of the
mortgage on the old place.”

“McPherson lent him five thousand on it.”

“And he expects to make that out West and keep the interest paid! He ‘ll
never do it in the world.”

Burton glanced across the crowd at the seedy-looking man with the pale
face and iron-gray hair, and his reply was tinged with feeling:

“You ‘re purty hard on ‘im, colonel; it’s none o’ my business, but he’s
a powerful good fellow. Seems to me, as he was the only brother you
have, you might have helped him a little.”

The planter’s eye fell, and an angry flush came into his dark face. “You
don’t know anything about it, Burton,” said he, quickly. “I acknowledge
we had some words about the will, but he set afloat the rumors about my
treatment of him when I was a candidate for the legislature, and it was
through him that I was beaten.”

Burton wished to change the subject. “I see the auctioneer and the
negroes going to the block,” he said. “Look at old Rastus; he prances
around like a two-year-old colt. I reckon you can fatten him up; a
little sickness does ‘em good sometimes.”

The crowd drew closer round the platform upon which the red-faced
auctioneer had sprung and was placing chairs for Rastus and his family.
All of them except Rastus himself seemed awed by the solemnity of the
occasion. “Who gwine buy me?” he laughed, clapping his hands and rubbing
them together. “I been er li’l sick, but I’m pickin’ up now, en kin hol’
my own wid any nigger in dis county. Who want me? Speak up quick.”

“Dry up,” laughed the auctioneer, and he playfully jerked off the old
man’s hat and laid it in the latter’s lap. “Don’t you know ernough not
to come ‘fo’ company with yore hat on? Who’s goin’ to sell this batch
of niggers, you or me? Ef you are, I ‘ll git down and bid on you. I want
somebody to look after my thoroughbreds.”

This sally evoked a wave of laughter from the crowd, and Rastus joined
in with as much enjoyment as if he had caused it. Herbert Putnam drew
Sill aside.

“Rastus is shamming,” he whispered; “he is as sick as he can be right
now. He’s doing it in order to bring a better price, to help me out. Dr.


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