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Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

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Wilson said the other day that he might live to be an old man, but that
he’d never be able to work any more.”

“Good gracious!” ejaculated Sill; “who ever heard the like? He’s a
hero.”

Herbert Putnam’s eyes glistened and his voice was unsteady as he spoke.
“I’d give my right arm rather than part with him. If I were able, he
and his should be free to-day.” The auctioneer began to gesticulate and
shout: “Six hundred has been bid on Rastus, by Mr. Burton over thar, to
start the game. Only six hundred for one of the best buck negroes in the
county. Seven hundred! That’s right, Mr. Staley; he’s the very man you
want. Seven hundred; eight do I hear it? Thank you; Mr. Burton don’t
intend to take a back seat. All right; nine hundred! Nine-fifty do I
hear it, Mr. Burton? Nine-fifty it is. Mr. Staley has got a thousand
ready for him; a thousand has been bid; anybody else in the fight? Old
Rastus is thin, but he could throw a bull a rod by the tail. One
thousand only on a two-thousand-dollar negro. Do I hear more?”

George Putnam’s face darkened angrily as he watched the excited features
of old man Staley. He drew Burton’s ear down to his lips: “Bid twelve
hundred, and knock him out and be done with it,” he whispered; “it will
scare him to death.”

“Twelve hundred,” said Burton, without a change of countenance, and
silence fell on the chattering, speculating crowd; even the voluble
auctioneer showed surprise by not at once echoing the bid. Old Rastus
took advantage of the pause; he sprang up and clapped his hands and
knocked his heels together. “I ain’t no thousand-dollar nigger,” he
cried. “I b’longs ter Marse Herbert Putnam, I does; de ain’t no cheap
nigger on dis yer block.”

“Twelve hundred dollars!” repeated the auctioneer, impressively, and
there was something vaguely respectful in the way he pushed Rastus back
into his chair. “Twelve hundred! Mr. Staley, don’t back out; you need
‘im wuss than anybody else. Is it twelve-twenty-five?”

Staley hesitated; his eyes fell before the concentrated stare of the
silent crowd, and then he nodded. A murmur passed through the assembly,
and Colonel Putnam grew white with anger. “Some one has put him up to
this,” he said in a low tone to his agent. “Make it thirteen hundred.”
And the next instant the auctioneer was flaunting the bid in the face of
old Staley.

Herbert Putnam, unnoticed by any one, elbowed his way through the crowd
to his brother and touched him on the arm. Their eyes met. “Pardon me,”
said Herbert, “but I must speak to you.”

And George Putnam was drawn beyond the outskirts of the crowd. “I
cannot keep quiet and see you cheated,” faltered Herbert, with his eyes
averted. “A long time ago, when you and I were boys, you stood up for
me, and I cannot forget that we are brothers. Don’t bid any more
on Rastus; he is shamming; he is as sick as he can be, and is only
pretending to be well to bring a high price.”

The two men gazed into each other’s eyes. George Putnam was quivering
all over, and his face was softening. Impulsively he put out his hand,
as if to apologize for his lack of words. “Let’s not be enemies any
longer,” went on Herbert, as he pressed the extended hand. “I am sick
and tired of this estrangement. I am going away, and I may never come
back. I can’t keep up the old place as father thought I would, and you
are welcome to it. Take it and care for it; mother’s and father’s graves
are on it.”

George Putnam’s face was working; he strove to reply, but his voice
clogged. He looked toward his son and wife in his carriage, and then
back into his brother’s face. “God forgive me, Herb,” he said; “I’ve
treated you like a dog. Old Rastus has been truer to you than your own
brother. You shall not give up the old place; you must keep it. Wait!”
And with those words he hurried to the platform.

The auctioneer had been proclaiming Staley’s reckless bid of
thirteen-twenty-five, and the crowd was eagerly taking in the unusual
sight of the two Putnam brothers in close conversation. Colonel Putnam
reached the platform and signed the auctioneer to be quiet. Standing on
the lower step, he was in the view of all.

“I want Rastus, and I am going to have him,” he said to the upturned
faces. “I want him to give him back to my brother, who has been forced
by my neglect to offer him for sale. Twenty thousand dollars is my
bid - and Rastus is worth every cent of it.”

No one spoke as Colonel Putnam stepped back into the crowd. Old Rastus
seemed the only one to thoroughly grasp the situation. “Bress de Lawd!”
he exclaimed, and he slapped Aunt Milly on the back. “Dem boys done made
up, en I fotch twenty thousand dollars! Whooee!”

“Twenty thousand dollars,” said the auctioneer, awkwardly. “Twenty
thousand - do I hear - and sold to Colonel Putnam. I reckon the’ ain’t no
use puttin’ up the others.”

There was great activity in the crowd. Everybody was trying to see the
two brothers as they went arm in arm to Colonel Putnam’s carriage, and a
moment later, when the vehicle with four occupants turned into the road
leading toward George Putnam’s plantation, a unanimous cheer rose from
the crowd.




THE CONVICT’S RETURN


|The pedestrian trudged down the tortuous declivitous road of the
mountain amidst the splendor of autumn-tinted leafage and occasional
dashes of rhododendron flowers. Now and then he would stop and deeply
breathe in the crisp air, as if it were a palpable substance which was
pleasing to his palate. At such moments, when the interstices of trunks
and bowlders would permit, his eyes, large with weariness, would rest on
a certain farmhouse in the valley below.

“It’s identical the same,” he said, when he had completed the descent of
the mountain and was drawing near to it. “As fer as I can make out, it
hain’t altered one bit sence the day they tuk me away. Ef ever’thing
seems purtier now, it may be beca’se it’s in the fall of the year an’
the maple-trees an’ the laurel look so fancy.”

Approaching the barn, the only appurtenance to the four-roomed house,
farther on by a hundred yards, he leaned on the rail fence and looked
over into the barnyard at the screw of blue smoke which was rising from
a fire under a huge iron boiler.

“Marty’s killin’ hogs,” he said, reflectively. “I mought ‘a’ picked a
better day fer gittin’ back; she never was knowed to be in a good humor
durin’ hog-killin’.”

He half climbed, half vaulted over the fence, and approached the woman,
who was bowed over an improvised table of undressed planks on which were
heaped the dismembered sides, shoulders, and hams of pork. His heart
was in his mouth, owing to the carking doubt as to his welcome which
had been oozing into the joy of freedom ever since he began his homeward
journey. But it was not his wife who looked up as his step rustled the
corn-husks near her, but her unmarried sister, Lucinda Dykes.

“Well, I never!” she ejaculated. “It’s Dick Wakeman, as I am alive!” She
wiped her hand on her apron and gave it to him, limp and cold. “We all
heerd you was pardoned out, but none of us ‘lowed you’d make so straight
fer home.”

His features shrank, as if battered by the blow she had unwittingly
dealt him.

“I say!” he grunted. “Whar else in the name o’ common sense would a
feller go? A body that’s been penned up in the penitentiary fer four
years don’t keer to be losin’ time monkeyin’ round amongst plumb
strangers, when his own folks - when he hain’t laid eyes on his - ”

But, after all, good reasons for his haste in returning could not
be found outside of a certain sentimentality which lay deep beneath
Wakeman’s rugged exterior, and to which no one had ever heard him refer.

“Shorely,” said the old maid, taking a wrong grasp of the
situation - “shorely you knowed, Dick, that Marty has got ‘er divorce?”

“Oh, yes. Bad news takes a bee-line shoot fer its mark. I heerd the
court had granted ‘er a release, but that don’t matter. A lawyer down
thar told me that it all could be fixed up now I’m out. Ef I’d ‘a’ been
at home, Marty never would ‘a’ made sech a goose of ‘erse’f. How much
did the divorce set ‘er back?”

“About a hundred dollars,” answered Lucinda.

“Money liter’ly throwed away,” said the convict, with irrepressible
indignation. “Marty never did quite sech a silly thing while I was at
home.”

The old maid stared at him, a half-amused smile playing over her thin
face.

“But it was her money,” she said, argumentatively. “She owned the farm
an’ every stick an’ head o’ stock on it when you an’ ‘er got married.”

“You needn’t tell me that,” said Wakeman, sharply. “I know that; but
that ain’t no reason fer ‘er to throw ‘er money away gittin’ a divorce.”

Lucinda filled her hand with salt and began to sprinkle it on a side of
meat. “Law me,” she tittered, “I ‘ll bet you hain’t heerd about Marty an’
Jeff Goardley.”

“Yes, I have. Meddlin’ busybodies has writ me about that, too,” said
Wakeman, sitting down on the hopper of a corn-sheller and idly swinging
his foot.

“He’s a-courtin’ of ‘er like a broom-sedge field afire,” added the
sister, tentatively.

“She’s got too much sense to marry ‘im after ‘er promises to me,” said
the convict, firmly.

“She lets ‘im come reg’lar ev’ry Tuesday night.”

Wakeman was not ready with a reply, and Lucinda began to salt another
piece of pork.

“Ev’ry Tuesday night, rain or shine,” she said.

The words released Wakeman’s tongue.

“Huh, he’s the most triflin’ fop in the county.”

“Looks like some o’ the neighbors is powerful bent on the match,”
continued Lucinda, her tone betraying her own lack of sympathy for the
thing in question. “Marty was a-standin’ over thar at the fence jest
‘fore you come an’ whirled all of a sudden an’ went up to the house. She
said she was afeered her cracklin’s would burn, but I ‘ll bet she seed
you down the road. I never have been able to make ‘er out. She ain’t
once mentioned yore name sence you went off. Dick, I’m one that don’t,
nur never did, believe you meant to steal Williams’s hoss, kase you was
too drunk to know what you was a-doin’, but Marty never says whether
she does ur doesn’t. The day the news come back that you was sentenced I
ketched ‘er in the back room a-cryin’ as’ ef ‘er heart would break, but
that night ‘Lonzo Spann come in an’ said that you had let it out in the
court-room that you’d be glad even to go to the penitentiary to git a
rest from Marty’s tongue, an’ - ”

“Lucinda, as thar’s a God on high, them words never passed my lips,” the
convict interrupted.

“I ‘lowed not,” the old maid returned. “But it has got to be a sort of
standin’ joke ag’in Marty, an’ she heers it ev’ry now an’ then. But I’m
yore friend, Dick. I’ve had respect fer you ever sence I noticed how you
suffered when Annie got sick an’ died. Thar ain’t many men that has sech
feelin’ fer their dead children.”

Wakeman’s face softened.

“I was jest a-wonderin’, comin’ on, ef - ef anybody has been a-lookin’
after the grave sence I went off. The boys in the penitentiary used to
mention the’r dead once in a while, an’ I’d always tell ‘em about my
grave. Pris ‘ners, Lucinda, git to relyin’ on the company o’ the’r dead
about as much as the’r livin’ folks. In the four years that I was in
confinement not one friend o’ mine ever come to ax how I was gittin’
on.”

“Marty has been a-lookin’ after the grave,” said Lucinda, in the
suppressed tone peculiar to people who desire to disown deep emotion.
She turned her face toward the house. “I wish you wouldn’t talk about
yore bein’ neglected down thar, Dick. The Lord knows I’ve laid awake
many an’ many a cold night a-wonderin’ ef they give you-uns enough
cover, an’ ef they tuk them cold chains off ‘n you at night. An’ I reckon
Marty did, too, fer she used to roll an’ tumble as ef ‘er mind wasn’t at
ease.”

Wakeman took off his coat and rolled up his shirt-sleeves.

“I’m itchin’ to set in to farm-work ag’in,” he said. “Let me salt fer
you, an’ you run up thar an’ tell ‘er I’m back. Maybe she ‘ll come down
heer.”

Lucinda gave him her place at the table, a troubled expression taking
hold of her features.

“The great drawback is Jeff Goardley,” she said. “It really does look
like him an’ Marty will come to a understandin’. I don’t know railly
but what she may have promised him; he has seemed mighty confident heer
lately.”

Wakeman shrugged his shoulders and said nothing. He filled his hands
with the salt from a pail and began to rub it on the pork.

Lingeringly the woman left him and turned up the slight incline toward
the house. His eyes did not follow her. He was scrutinizing the pile of
pork she had salted.

“Goodness gracious!” he grunted. “Lu-cindy has wasted fifteen pound o’
salt. Ef I’d ‘a’ done that Marty’d ‘a’ tuk the top o’ my head off. I
wonder ef Marty could ‘a’ got careless sence she’s had all the work to
look after.”

He had salted the last piece of meat when, looking up, he saw Lucinda
standing near him.

“She wouldn’t come a step,” she announced, with some awkwardness of
delivery. “When I told ‘er you wuz down heer she jest come to the
door an’ looked down at you a-workin’ an’ grunted an’ went back to ‘er
cracklin’s. But that’s Marty.”

The convict dipped his hands into a tub of hot water and wiped them on
an empty salt-bag.

“I wonder,” he began, “ef I’d better - ” But he proceeded no further.

“I think I would,” said the angular mind-reader, sympathetically.

“Well, you come on up thar, too,” Wake-man proposed. “I’ve always
noticed that when you are about handy she never has as much to say as
she does commonly.”

“I ‘ll have to go,” said Lucinda. “Ef Marty gits to talkin’ to you she ‘ll
let the cracklin’s burn, an’ then - then she’d marry Goardley out o’ pure
spite.”

As the pair reached the steps of the back porch the convict caught a
glimpse of a gingham skirt within, and its stiff flounce as it vanished
behind the half-closed door-shutter suddenly flung an aspect of
seriousness into his countenance. He paused, his foot on the lowest
step, and peered into the sitting-room. Seeing it empty, he smiled.

“I ‘ll go in thar an’ take a cheer. Tell ‘er I want to see ‘er.”

His air of returning self-confidence provoked a faint laugh from his
well-wisher.

“Yo’ ‘re a case,” she said, nodding her consent to his request. “You are
different frum ‘most anybody else. Somehow I can’t think about you ever
havin’ been jailed fer hoss-stealin’.”

“It all depends on a body’s feelin’s,” the convict returned. “Down
thar in the penitentiary we had a little gang of us that knowed we wuz
innocent of wrong intentions, an’ we kinder flocked together. All the
rest sorter looked up to us an’ believed we wuz all right. It was a
comfort. I ‘ll step in an’ git it over.”

He walked as erectly as an Indian up the steps and into the
sitting-room. To his surprise Mrs. Wakeman started to enter the room
from the adjoining kitchen, and seeing him, turned and began to beat a
hasty retreat.

“Hold on thar, Marty,” he called out, in the old tone which had formerly
made strangers suppose that the farm and all pertaining to it had been
his when he married her.

She paused in the doorway, white and sullen.

“Ain’t you a-goin’ to tell a feller howdy an’ shake hands?” he asked,
with considerable self-possession.

“What ‘ud I do that fur?”

“Beca’se I’m home ag’in,” he said.

“Huh, nobody hain’t missed you.” The words followed a forced shrug.

“I know a sight better ‘n that, Marty,” he said. “I know a woman that
‘ud take a duck fit jest when I was gone to drive the cows home an’ got
delayed a little, would fret consider’ble durin’ four years of sech a - a
trip as I’ve had. Set down here an’ let’s have a talk.”

“I’ve got my work to do,” she returned, after half a minute of
speechlessness, her helpless anger standing between her and satisfactory
expression.

“Oh, all right!” he exclaimed. “I ain’t no hand to waste time durin’
work hours with dillydallyin’. Any other time ‘ll do me jest as well. I
‘lowed maybe it would suit you better to have it over with. I must git
out the hoss an’ wagon an’ haul that hog-meat up to the smokehouse.
Whar’s Cato? I ‘ll bet that triflin’ nigger has give you the slip ag’in
this hog-killin’, like he always did.”

Mrs. Wakeman stared at the speaker in a sort of thwarted, defiant
way without deigning to reply; her sneer was the only thing about her
bearing which seemed at all expressive of the vast contempt for him that
she really did not feel. She felt that her silence was cowardly, her
failure to assert her rights as a divorced woman an admission that she
was glad of his return.

At this critical juncture Lucinda Dykes sauntered into the room and
leaned against the dingy, once sky-blue wall. Her air of interested
amusement over the matrimonial predicament had left her. It had dawned
upon her, now that her sister had taken refuge in obstinate silence,
that a vast responsibility rested on her as intermediary.

“Cato went with some more niggers to a shindig over at Squire Camp’s
yesterday an’ hain’t showed up sence,” she explained. “Ef I was
you-uns - ef I was Marty, I mean - I’d turn ‘im off fer good an’ all.
Dick, sence you went off me nur Marty hain’t been able to do a thing
with ‘im.”

The convict grunted. It was as if he had succeeded in rolling the last
four years from his memory as completely as if they had never passed.

“Jest wait till I see the black scamp,” he growled. “I reckon I ‘ll have
to do every lick of the work myself.” With that Wakeman turned into the
entry and thence went to the stable-yard near by.

“He hain’t altered a smidgin’,” Lucinda commented. “It may be kase he
has on the identical same clothes; he’s been a-wearin’ striped ones
down thar, you know, an’ they laid away his old ones. To save me I can’t
realize that he’s been off even a week.” The old maid snickered softly.
“He’s the only one that could ever manage you, Marty. Now Jeff Goardley
would let you have yore own way, but Dick’s a caution! It’s always been
a question with me as to whether a woman would ruther lead a man ur be
led.”

There was a white stare in Mrs Wakeman’s eyes which indicated that
she was pondering the man’s chief aggression rather than heeding her
sister’s nagging remarks. The sudden appearance of the convict’s
head and shoulders above a near-at-hand window-sill rendered a reply
unnecessary. His face was flushed.

“Can you-uns tell me whar under the sun the halter is?” he broke forth,
in a turbulent tone. “I tuk the trouble to put a iron hook up in the
shed-room jest fer that halter, an’ now somebody has tore down the hook
an’ I can’t find hair nur hide o’ the halter.”

Mrs. Wakeman tried to sneer again as she turned aside, and the gaunt
intermediary, spurred on to her duty, approached the window.

“The blacksmith tuk that hook to mend the harrow with,” she said, with a
warning glance at Marty. “You ‘ll find the halter on the joist above the
hoss-trough. Ef I was you, on this fust day, I’d try to - ” But Wakeman
had dropped out of sight, and muttering unintelligible sounds indicative
of discomfiture, was striding toward the stable.

All the rest of that afternoon the convict toiled in the smoke-house,
hanging the meat on hooks along the joists over a slow, partly smothered
fire of chips and pieces of bark. When the work was finished his eyes
were red from smoke and brine. He stabled the horse and fed him, and
then, realizing that he had nothing more to do, he felt hungry. He
wanted to go into the sitting-room and sit down in his old place in the
chimney-corner, but a growing appreciation of the extreme delicacy of
the situation had taken hold of him. He wandered about the stable-yard
in a desultory way, going to the pig-pen, now empty and blood-stained,
and to the well-filled corn-crib, but these objects had little claim
on his interest. The evening shadows had begun to stalk like dank
amphibious monsters over the carpet of turf along the creek-banks, and
pencils of light were streaming out of the windows of the family-room.
Suddenly his eyes took in the woodpile; he went to it, and picking
up the ax, began to cut wood. He was tired, but he felt that he would
rather be seen occupied than remaining outside without a visible excuse
for so doing. In a few minutes he was joined by Lucinda.

“Dick,” she intoned, “you’ve worked enough, the Lord Almighty knows.
Come in the house an’ rest ‘fore supper; it’s mighty nigh ready.”

He avoided her glance, and shamefacedly touched a big log he had just
cut into the proper length for the fireplace.

“Cato, the triflin’ scamp, hain’t cut you-uns a single backlog,” he
said, in a tone that she had never heard from him.

“We hain’t had a decent one sence you went off, Brother Richard,” she
returned. “An’ a fire’s no fire without a backlog.”

Their eyes met. She saw that he was deeply stirred by her tenderness,
and that opened the floodgates of her sympathy. She began to rub her
eyes.

“Oh, Dick, I’m so miser’ble; ef you an’ Marty don’t quit actin’ like you
are I don’t know what I will do.”

She saw him make a motion as if he had swallowed something; then he
stooped and shouldered the heavy backlog and some smaller sticks.

“I ‘ll give you-uns one more backlog to set by, anyhow,” he said,
huskily.

She preceded him into the sitting-room and stood over him while he raked
out the hot coals and deposited the log against the back part of the
fireplace. Then she turned into the kitchen and approached her sister,
who was frying meat in an iron pan on the coals.

“Marty,” she said, unsteadily, “ef you begin on Dick I ‘ll go off fer
good. I can’t stand that.”

Mrs. Wakeman folded her stern lips, as if to keep them under check, and
shrugged her shoulders. That was all the response she made.

Lucinda turned back into the sitting-room, where the dining-table stood.
To-night she put three plates on the white cloth; one of them had been
Dick’s for years. She put it at the end of the table where he had sat
when he was the head of the house. As she did so she caught his shifting
glance and smiled.

“I want to make you feel as ef nothin’ in the world had happened, Dick,”
she said. “I’ve been a-fixin’ you a bed in the company-room, but you
jest must be sensible about that.”

“Law! anything will suit me,” he began. But the entrance of Marty
interrupted his remark.

She put the bread, the coffee, the meat, and the gravy on the table, and
sat down in her place without a word. Lucinda glanced at Wakeman.

“Come on, Dick,” she called out. “I ‘ll bet yo’ ‘re hungry as a bear.”

He drew out the chair that had been placed for him and sat down. Now an
awkward situation presented itself. In the absence of a man Marty always
asked the blessing. Lucinda wondered what would take place; one thing
she knew well, and that was that Marty was too punctilious in religious
matters to touch a bite of food before grace had been said by some one.
But just then she noticed something about Wakeman that sent a little
thrill of horror through her. Evidently his long life in prison had
caused him to retrograde into utter forgetfulness of the existence of
table etiquette, for he had drawn the great dish of fried meat toward
him and was critically eying the various parts as he slowly turned it
round.

“What a fool I am,” he said, the delightful savor of the meat rendering
him momentarily oblivious of his former wife’s forbidding aspect. “I
laid aside the lights o’ that littlest shote an’ firmly intended to ax
you to fry ‘em fer me, but - ”

Lucinda’s stare convinced him that something had gone wrong.

“Marty’s waitin’ fer somebody to ax the blessin’,” she explained.


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