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The Freedman's Story
by M. Schele de Vere
I have thought that a plain, unvarnished account of a servant's trials in his efforts to secure his freedom might not be uninteresting. It is given as nearly as possible in his own words. Oby is now with me, my dining-room servant. He has learned to read himself what I have written.
Charlottesville, Virginia. M. S. de V.
My name is Oby; they say it is because my father was an Obeah man, when he lived down South in Florida and drove a stage. I have heard him say, to the contrary, that he belonged, at the time I was born, to a man by the name of Overton, and that that is my true name. So when I went down to town the other day, and the Provost-Marshal asked me if I could sign my own name, I boldly wrote down "Mr. Overton Paragon." [...]
I was nearly grown--I may have been about nineteen or twenty years old--when the Yankees came right down upon us. We had been expecting them often before, and many is the time Uncle Henry came running in where mother was and cried out, "God be thanked, they are coming, they are coming!" And mother asked him, "Who are you talking about?" and he would say, "Our deliverers, the Yankees, whom God sends to make us all free!" But mother did not like his ways at all, and when he was gone she would take me and brother Henry by her little stool close to the fire and say: "Now, boys, don't you think you'll be so much better off when you are free. Folks have to work every where, free or slave, black or white; and it's much better for you to be with genteel folks, and go to church, [...] than to be way off, where you have not any body who cares for you."
Mother was mighty good to us, and I know she meant it all for the best, but, to save my life, I could not help thinking of what Uncle Henry said, and what a fine thing it would be to be free, and to have twelve dollars a month and nothing to do. So I went over to Colonel Wood's Aleck and we talked it over behind the wood-pile, where nobody could hear us, and he told me how he knew a plenty more who would go away as soon as ever the Yankees came. He said they were fighting for us, and if we wanted to go we need not run away by night, [...] but we might ride off on a fine horse, in the middle of the day, and our masters could not say a word against it for fear of the Yankees. So I promised I would join him, and when we heard that General Sheridan was coming this way, with a hundred thousand men, we knew that the Confederates could not stand before him, and we agreed we would go off all together. [...]
And so it did come about one fine, clear morning. On Monday a man in gray had come racing up the turnpike, looking right and left under his broad-brimmed, slouched hat, and gone into town. Uncle Henry had met him as he came up, and shook his head and said: "Now, I should not wonder if that was a real Yankee." They all laughed at him, and asked him if he did not see the Confederate gray and the ragged hat the man wore. But he shook his head and said: "Now, I'll tell you, boys, it may be so, and it may not be so; but that man there did not ride like one of our folks, and he had his eyes too busy and his hand too near his revolver to be one of our soldiers." That morning early there came two, and three, and at last a whole number of these gray-coats. [...]
On Tuesday, early in the morning, as soon as master had had his breakfast, we all slipped out and went down to the road, where we found a great many people standing about and talking of what the Yankees were going to do with the house, and the servants, and the town itself. Down by the lake, where the road from the house comes into the turnpike, and not far from the little lodge, stood a heap of gentlemen, who had come up from town to beg pardon of the General, and to ask him not to burn them all out. They were mightily scared, and Mr. Fowler, the tailor, who is a great goose, as I have heard it said often and often, looked white and shook in all his limbs. It could not be from the cold, for although the rain had stopped overnight, it was quite mild in the morning. Alongside of them, but a little apart, stood master and some of his friends; I don't know if they had come too to ask the Yankees to spare the house. Soon one man came flying down the hill, and then another, and then three or four together, galloping right by us without ever stopping, and just crying one after another, "They are coming! they are coming!" [...] Every now and then somebody would cry out, "There they are!" and we all looked up to the top of the hill, behind which the road was hid, and when a man slowly rose over the brow and it turned out that he was on horseback, we thought sure enough there were the Yankees. So we stood hours and hours, and just when we thought they would not be coming that day, two men rode up the hill and down again slowly, then three more, then a dozen or more all in a body, with flags in their hands; and at last the whole turnpike was blue, and we knew for a certainty they were come. We just looked at one another, and I felt mighty queer; but Uncle Henry and all the others, who stood way down by the stile, looked exactly as if they were going to shout to the sky and to jump out of their skin. Aleck looked at me too, and winked, and shut his eyes, and shook all over, till I could not help myself, and I laughed, and they all laughed, and it set the others down at the stile a-laughing, and we held our sides and did not mind master and his friends looking at us as if they did not like it at all.
When the first officer came up to where Mr. Fowler stood, he rushed forward and came near falling between the horses' feet, and they all cried out together, I don't know what; but the tailor had the biggest mouth, and he talked loudest. So I suppose they heard him, and one of the officers said something about private property being spared, but public property must be given up.
Just then master walked up himself, like a real gentleman that he is, and although he was on foot and had not even a spur on his boot, he looked as good a man as the big officers on their fine horses. One of them told him he was not the General, but he would send up a guard as soon as they got into town. Then they moved on, and such a sight! They looked very different from our poor Confederate soldiers, with their sleek horses and bright swords, and there was not a ragged jacket or a bare foot among them all. They had, every one of them, a pile of good things strapped up behind and before their saddles, and a good many had a fine horse by their side with all sorts of packages and parcels strapped upon their back, ever so high, but nobody in the saddle. [...] We stood there and looked and looked until we were tired, for there was no end to the horses, and the big guns, and the wagons, and oh, they had every thing so nice and so whole, though they were bespattered from head to foot; I did not think soldiers could look so well. At last they were nearly all gone, and I and Aleck went back.
When we came to the other side of the lake we saw Miss Mary and some of the other young ladies standing by the window up stairs, and some of them were crying; but Miss Mary waved a little flag, such as our soldiers have, right in the face of the Yankees. But master looked up and gave her such a look! Miss Mary went away from the window, and when they sent for her to come down to dinner, she told Flora to tell master she had a bad headache and did not want any dinner. Soon after the bell rang, and when I went to the front-door there stood a big Yankee officer, with his sword by his side and the mud all over him, and he asked in a very soft voice if master was at home. I did not like much his talking of my master and he a Yankee, but I knew I must be polite to strangers, and I asked him to please walk in. He said he wanted to see master, would I request him to come to the front-door for a moment. I can't tell exactly what it was, but there was something in the officer's voice, and in the way he spoke to me, that made me feel a big man, and as if nobody ought to call me Oby any more. Master is mighty good to me, but he always talks to me as if I was a little baby and had not any sense at all. Now the officer spoke right sternly, though his voice was so soft, but somehow it did not hurt me in the least, and I felt all the better for it. I ran in and told master, who came out at once, not at all flurried but like a grand old gentleman, and he begged the officer very politely to walk in. But he would not come in, and merely told master that he was on General Sheridan's staff, and that he wished to know where he should place the guard. I wanted badly to hear what they were going to say to each other, but master sent me down stairs to tell Aunt Hannah to cook a big dinner for the soldiers. We had done that often enough when our poor Confederates came by, and there was not much left in the smoke-house; but when the folks in the kitchen heard it was for the Yankees they were going to cook they set to work with a will. Aunt Hannah said she would sit up all night to work for them blessed Yankees, and Flora laughed and cried out that she hoped there was a handsome captain coming to take her to Boston. [...]
[Then] there came such a pull at the door-bell that I jumped up and thought the Yankees were breaking into the house. I ran up the stairs as fast as I could, and as I was trying to unlock the door--we did not use to do it, and so the key would not turn very quickly--somebody rang and rang until I got frightened out of my wits. When I opened the door there stood Miss Polly, as red as a peony, her dress all in tatters, and her hair hanging about her as I had never seen a lady do in all my life, and rushes by me to master's study. Master had just come out to see what was the matter, and she ran nearly over him. Then she began telling him to come, for God's sake, to her house; how the Yankees had come there and broken every thing to pieces, and were misbehaving shamefully. I did not believe a word of it, for they had been very polite to us all and to master too; but he did not say a word, put on his hat, gave Miss Polly his arm, and walked right off with her. I followed him, for I thought he might want me, and I heard Miss Polly rattling away like a water-mill, telling him how the soldiers had come to the house, and first broken into the kitchen and eaten all the dinner that there was, and then came into the sitting-room and asked for whisky. Her brother, who had been shot in the Valley and was lying with a broken leg on a couch, had gotten very angry and called them names. The Yankees did not like that, and went to work smashing every thing in the house. So she ran over to our house to get help.
When we crossed the road--it was knee-deep in mud--we saw Miss Emma, with her three little children, sitting on the big oak stump right by the house, crying bitterly, and in the house all the windows and doors smashed, and such a row as I have not heard in my life. Master puts Miss Polly down by her sister's side, and tells her to sit quiet, and then he walks as boldly up to where the Yankees were as if he were General Sheridan himself. I was afraid to go after him, so I staid by the ladies, who, I thought, wanted somebody to protect them, and they were so full of the misfortune they told me every thing. All the silver was gone, and all the china was broken, and the pictures cut to pieces, and the books thrown out of the window; and as they were telling me the soldiers came out. Some had a pillow-case full of flour, another a tureen filled with meal, and still another had two big gold watches in his hand. At last one came out with a silver cup in his hand. When Miss Emma sees him she jumps up and catches hold of it, and says, "You sha'n't take away my poor baby's cup!" "But I will," says the soldier--a great big fellow with a sword by his side. "But you sha'n't!" cries Miss Emma again, and the big tears ran down her cheeks. And there they pulled, she on one side and the gentleman on the other side, and I thought she was going to fall down, when master comes out and very quietly puts his hand upon the soldier's arm, and says, "You will surely oblige the lady and let her have the cup." The Yankee looked quite bewildered, but he had let go, and Miss Emma ran back to her seat with her baby in her arm; and the baby held the cup with her dumpy little fingers, as if she knew what she held, and master looked pleased and said: "I am glad, Sir, you can act so handsomely." I thought the soldier had a great mind to tell him he did not want any of his praise; but I know most men were rather afraid of master, he looked so stiff and so stately; and he went slowly away. [...]
Soon after the Yankees made a great uproar in the house, and then they came out, one by one, [a] red-haired man shoving them out with a laugh and a curse, until the house was clear again. I had been watching them, so that I did not hear what master said to the ladies, but just as the last one went down the hill I heard Miss Polly crying bitterly, and saying: "And would you believe it, Sir, one of these wretches told me I was the ugliest woman he had seen in the Confederacy; and as for Emma, she was too ugly to live?" I looked hard at master, to see what he would say to that, but I thought he was trying all he could not to laugh. Then he smiled and gave his arm to Miss Emma, and asked her when she had heard from her husband, and they all went back to the house.
The red-haired man came out and sat down on the bench in the veranda; and when he sees me standing there, he says, "Come here, man, and bring me some water; and, look here, bring me some whisky too, or I'll cut your head off!" I was certainly afraid he would do it, too, so I ran as fast as I could to Uncle Tony close by, who I knew had some apple brandy, and telling him that it was for a Yankee soldier he gave me some. I ran back to the Irish gentleman--for I knew him to be Irish, because we have so many of those folks around us, working on the canal--and brought him the whisky. I was running for the water too, but he called after me, and said he was not thirsty now, I need not go for water. So I sat down on the grass by his side, and looked up at him, and got hold of his sword, and made the little wheels on his spurs play as fast as they would go.
All of a sudden he looks at me and says: "Hallo, Cuffee, how would you like to have a fine horse and ride along with us all?" My heart jumped when I heard him make such an offer; but I did not know if he was in earnest, so I only laughed and laughed until he could not help himself and had to laugh too. But after a while he looked very sober, and said: "Nonsense, Cuffee, nonsense; don't laugh that way, but tell me soberly would not you like to go with me and become a soldier?" When I saw that he was really in earnest I jumped up and said, as loud as I could, "Yes, Sir, that I will, and I have long waited for the day; God be thanked it has come at last, and I shall be a free man!"
He told me then to follow him, and we went over to Burr's Hill, where the General had his head-quarters, and the red-haired man's regiment had their camp. When we got there I found out that he belonged to the artillery, and the whole wood was filled with guns, and wagons, and horses, and all about the hill were fires lit, and the men were sitting around them eating their supper. I felt all of a sudden as hungry as a rattlesnake, for there they had coffee, and white sugar, and lemons, and all the good things we had not seen at our house for ever so long. We went past them all, until we came close to the house, and there I saw a great number of colored gentlemen standing around in a circle, and in the middle were some Yankee soldiers. Just as we came up I heard one of them say, "Here is another fine lot; what's the bid?" I felt as if I was turning to stone, when I found out that he held Bob, my second cousin, by his right ear, and pushed him forward in the bright light. I thought sure enough it was all the old story over again, and we were not free yet, but to be sold just as we were before. Somebody cried out, "I'll give a ham!" and another, "I bid a loaf of sugar!" Now I wondered more than ever, for Bob was a powerful fellow, and could plow better than any man on the plantation, and that was no price at all, even in Confederate money. But I soon found out that they were only offering something for the right to choose their servants, and that we were really free, only we could not choose our masters, but they chose us.
When I understood that fight, I turned round and said, very politely, "Master, I wish you would not offer me to any body but keep me yourself. I would rather be your servant than any body's else." He seemed to be quite pleased at being called Master, and slapped me on the shoulder, and said, "Well, Cuffee, if you wish it, you may do so." I did not like to be called Cuffee, which is not respectable for a nigger who moves in good society; so I said, "Master, my name is Oby; and if it is the same to you, I would rather you should call me by my name." [...]
My new master showed me a beautiful horse that I was to ride, and when the light came through the trees and I could see every thing clear, I saw it was Master William's great big stallion. I did not like to get on him, because every body about here knew him, he had stood so often down in town, but I was told to take him down to water, and I did not like to be bucked. [...] I went down to the spring, and I could not help thinking he was the handsomest horse I had ever laid eyes on, and it would be a great thing for me to ride alongside of all the gentlemen on such a fine horse. When I came back to the fire they showed me a quantity of bags and bales, all nicely fixed in white cotton sheets, which I had to strap on the horse; there was just enough room left between the pile in front and the pile behind to get into the saddle. They did not give me any breakfast either, but I did not mind that much, for soon the bugles sounded--it made me feel like a gentleman to be called by a bugle like all the others; and my new master, who was a corporal or a major, had some other gentlemen under him, and when the guns were all ranged in beautiful order, the Colonel came out and looked at us, and off we marched with the music at our head.
First came the Colonel and some officers, then came the music, with all sorts of instruments such as I had never seen before; after them came men who bore a number of flags, which I knew nothing of, and after them, before all the regiment, came we colored people, about fifty of us, all on fine horses, and the happiest boys ever you saw in your life. It was glorious. But when we got to the corner by the tobacco-house, where the gate has been out of order for many years and the lane is quite low and narrow, they all stopped and we could not go any farther. The mud was awful, and the horses could not pull the heavy guns and the wagons.
Just then who must come up but master. I felt mighty badly, but I could not run away, and I looked for my new master to stand by me and let them all know that I was free. When master's eye came slowly down the line and at last fell right upon me, I thought I was going to sink into the ground. It made me feel sick. When I looked up again he was making his way through the horses and the cannons right up to me, and did not mind the mud, and the way the soldiers all looked at him, and the horses that wanted to kick him. When he came up to where I sat on my horse, he just said, "Oh, Oby!" And before I knew what I was doing, I was out of the saddle and standing right before him, with my new cap in my hand. He said, in his quiet way, "Oby, you know you are not strong enough to sleep out in the open air; you have not even a blanket, and it is not three weeks since you were sick with pneumonia. Come home, my boy, and don't distress your father and your mother. You know it will kill them!"
I knew that what he said was but too true; but then again, when I looked at the fine horse I was on, and all the gentlemen around me, I felt quite undecided. Master said again, very quietly, "Come home, Oby!" and I followed him, I did not know why. But just as we were getting out of the crowd, on the side of the road, my new master came dashing up to where we were, and with a terrible oath told me to mount my horse and be ready to start. I was so frightened I did not know what to do. Master never said a word, but just looked at me as if he pitied me from the bottom of his heart, and I could not stand that; I did not think of father and mother at home, nor of Flora, nor of the nice times we had had together in the fields at night, but I just looked at master and went away with him. But the soldier was not satisfied yet; he came straight up to us, and swearing worse than ever, he said to master, "How dare you, Sir, force that man away? Do you not know that he is free, and has a right to go where he will?" Master changed color; I knew he was not accustomed to be spoken to in that way, and I wished I had never thought of enlisting as a soldier. But he said nothing at all, and although the soldiers all turned around, and my new master pulled out his carbine and cocked it, he made his way between the horses and the guns, I following him close by, until we came out on the other side of the column, and then he said very quietly, "Now, Oby, go home and tell your father not to distress himself about you any farther." I was just running up the road, when I heard somebody galloping up, and as I turned round I saw it was a great officer, with a sword in his hand, who rode up to master and asked him what was the matter. I could not hear his answer, but the officer said, "We do not force servants to go with us, and if your boy wants to stay, let him stay."
When I came home I found father and mother, Uncle Henry, and all of them in mother's room, and when they saw me they all cried out, "Oh, Oby, what have you been doing?" Well, it made me right angry to be treated thus like a baby, and I went out into the yard. There stood Flora, and what must she do but come up to me in the prettiest way of the world and drop me a little courtesy, and say in a little lisping way, "Oho, Mr. Paragon, you had not the courage to go with your friends? Don't you look like a little whipped boy? Shall I ask Miss Lucy for some candy for you?" It made me mad to hear her talk so, when she had all the time been telling me that I ought to stay, and not run away like the poor stupid field-hands. [...]
Late in the evening Uncle Bob came home, and such a sight he was! He had a double harness hanging over his shoulders, and a saddle on his head, and his hands full of bags and satchels, and a big gun under his arm. He looked very tired, and threw it all down; then he opened the door again and laughed, and when we went out there to see what it was, we found a nice carryall and two good, strong horses fastened to the fence. I knew the carriage well; it belonged to old Miss Mary Fitch, and the horses were Uncle Bob's master's. I did not like his goings on much, but he was an old man and I had no right to say any thing to him. When he had had his supper he lit his pipe and looked around him, and when he noticed me he opened his eyes wide, and said, "Why, Oby, I thought you had gone with the Yankees!" I felt mightily ashamed. I had to tell him all about it, and when I had done he called me out and whispered to me, "Now, look here, Oby, don't you make a fool of yourself, but come along with me to-night and be a man." He talked and talked, and before I knew exactly how it was, I had promised to go with him. He had a way about him that few could resist, and when he wanted you to do any thing he was sure to get you to do it.
It was a dark night, the moon was behind the clouds, and at times you could not see the hand before your eyes. Uncle Bob had hitched up and put Aunt Betsy and the four children inside the carryall; he sat on the box, and every corner behind and before was stuffed full with bags and parcels. I do not know why they took so much; but Aunt Betsy would take every thing; and there was her spinning-wheel, and her split-bottomed rocking-chair, and the cradle for the baby. [...] We walked pretty fast, and listened with all our might, for we thought we might meet some gentleman and he might stop us. But there was nobody about that night; every body was afraid of the Yankees, and kept very close. Besides, the roads were awful, and Uncle Bob's horses could hardly pull the carryall at a snail's pace. Every now and then they would stick fast in the mud, and then we had to take rails from the fence and put them under the wheels and help Uncle Bob. [...] At last we could not get any further, and just then we saw a light through the trees, and when we whipped the horses on both sides to get nearer to it we found an army wagon in the middle of the road, with the mud over the hubs of the wheels, and one of the mules half-dead and half-buried in the mud. The drivers and some of the escort had made a roaring fire in the woods, and we joined them. I was so sleepy I fell down where we, stopped, and did not know what happened any more.
I was just dreaming of my young master's calling me to saddle his pony when somebody touched me on the shoulder. I could not wake up at once. It always went hard with me to wake in the morning, and then I heard somebody call my name. It sounded very sweet to me somehow, though I did not know where it came from, and when I got my eyes open at last I thought I was dreaming still. For there was Flora standing by my side, looking up at the top of the tree, as if she did not know I was lying right before her. After a while she turned her eyes all around her, and when they came back to me she cried out, "Why, Oby, if that is not you! Where on earth do you come from?" Now that was a nice question to ask me; so I just jumped up and laughed heartily; and then she began laughing too, and before I knew what I was doing my arm was round her waist and I had kissed her twice. She pretended to be very angry, but I only laughed the more, and at last she told me how she had heard from Uncle Bob's son, who stays at master's mill, that I had gone along with him. Then she had made a little bundle of her nicest clothes and had followed us all the way, never saying a word, until she felt so cold in the morning she could not stay away any longer from the fire. When I asked her what she had come for, she said: "You would not have me let Aunt Betsy go away with all those babies and no one to take care of them? And then, might not somebody have come and frightened Mr. Paragon out of his wits and sent him home again crying?" [...]
After a while I began to feel hungry, and when I looked at Flora in the bright daylight I thought she looked hungry too; at all events she was very pale and drooping, and I saw she had no shoes on, and could hardly walk. I went to help her, but she tried to hold up, and said it did not matter. I saw, though, it would matter pretty soon, for we had not a mouthful of bread nor meal among us, and, except Uncle Bob, who was rich enough, there was not one among us who had any money. And here we were alone, left by our natural friends and protectors, and not likely to be received on any plantation.
It seemed that all of our party felt the same way, for no one said a word. Every now and then one of the children would begin to whine and be told to hush up. Then some girl would laugh right out and suddenly stop short, as if she was frightened at the sound of her own voice. Uncle Bob, who knew best, had his hands full to drive his tired horses and to pull the carryall, with its heavy load, through the awfully bad roads. I walked steadily on, Flora right behind me, Indian file, and what with the cold, drizzling rain, wetting us to the skin, and the loads of mud that stuck to our feet, and the heavy thoughts that weighed on our minds, we did not make a very merry couple. I thought, every now and then, what a glorious time I would have at the North. I knew I could make as good a shoe as any white man, and I thought of a nice little shop I might have in Cincinnati, where Peter Hite went when he was made free, and of Flora being my good wife, really married, and the beautiful things I was going to buy for her, so that she might look a real lady. But in the midst of my thoughts I stumbled against a big, old root, or Flora sighed behind me, and then coughed a little to put me on a false track, or asked me some question, to show that she was not sad at all, and my dreams were gone in a moment, and I saw all our troubles clear before me again.
We tramped on until late in the evening, when we met an old field-hand, with a bag of potatoes on his back, who told us we were still eight miles from the canal, and that he had seen no Yankees any where. We asked him to let us have his potatoes, but he said he did not want to have any thing to do with runaway niggers, and was going away to leave us, when Uncle Bob came up and asked him what he would take for them in greenbacks. When he heard us speak of greenbacks he became very polite at once, and sold them for ninepence to Uncle Bob, who made him promise to bring some fat middling and some corn-meal up to the old tobacco house, where we meant to spend the night. We all went in there, and it was a nice enough place for us to get dry in; there was some hay in a lean-to on one side, and I made a nice little bed for Flora; but we did not dare make a large fire for fear they might see it at the house and send the overseer down to turn us out. Uncle Bob got his middling, and Aunt Betsy cooked all they had for herself and her children, asking me and Flora to come up and help ourselves. I did not like much going there, when there were so many others who had nothing at all to eat, but Uncle Bob told me to make no hesitation--he always loved big words--and to partake of his victuals. I took Flora by the hand and pulled her along with me to the fire. Aunt Betsy looked at us, and I thought she was going to have a hearty laugh, but somehow there was none of us that night could laugh heartily, and we ate just to satisfy our hunger, but it did not taste good. Then we had a chew of tobacco, and Uncle Bob proposed we should sing a psalm about the mansions in the sky, and hallelujah, but we broke down pretty soon, and then we all lay down, one here, one there, as we were sitting. I was tired enough, but I could not sleep; the thoughts would come into my head. I could not drive father and mother out of my head, and every time I saw them in my mind they looked so sad it made me feel very badly. Then the children cried and moaned and asked for something to eat; and some of the old ones groaned too, and cried out: "O Lord, O Lord a-mercy!"--it was very hard to hear it all and not be able to help them in any way. So I was right glad when the mist broke in the morning and the sun rose, first red, like blood, and looking as if it were angry at us, and then clear and bright, like the dayspring from on high. [...]
The road was worse than ever, for Sheridan's men had been right ahead of us, and they had trampled the mud knee-deep, and if the carryall once got into the ruts the army wagons had made, there was hardly any way to get it out again. We were soon left behind, for we had to pull the horses out when they stuck fast, and to mend the harness, that was all the time breaking, and take the rails from the fence and pry the carriage up to let the poor starved horses pull it out again.
At last we came to a sandy stretch in the pine woods, where it was a little better, and as we turned round a corner, there, right in the fence, lay Aunt Phoebe, and by her side two of her little babies, the one three years old and the other about nine months, and never a word did any one of them say. I went up to Aunt Phoebe and shook her, and asked her what was the matter. At first she would not answer at all; at last, when Flora came up and whispered into her ear, and begged her to speak to her, she said, very faintly, that she could not possibly go a step further, and that she had not a drop of milk left for her baby. [...] I asked Uncle Bob if he thought she would die? He did not look at me at all, but just said in his beard, "I don't know; maybe she will, maybe she won't; perhaps it's better for her to die than to live on as she has done."
After that we were sadder than ever before. Poor Flora lost her big shoes every other step, and most of the ladies had to throw away their bundles, and even then they could hardly get along. Whenever we met a colored man we asked him how far it still was to the canal, for we knew we would meet the Yankees there sure enough, and they would not let us starve, but give us all rations. It seemed as if we were never getting nearer to it, for every time we asked it was still some four or five miles, maybe six. We met some white gentlemen, too, on the road, but they just looked at us with stern faces and rode by. Once we came to a little bit of a house by the way-side, and saw an old lady sitting by the door, with a cat lapping up the milk in a gourd she held on her lap. I could not stand seeing that, so I walk up to her and make her a polite bow, and say, "Oh, Missis, I see you are a mighty good lady, won't you be so kind as to give me a little of that milk for a poor girl who is half dead over yonder?" The old lady looked at me and then at Flora, who was standing at the gate, staring with her big eyes at the gourd as if she had never seen milk in her life. After a while she said, "Well, I don't care; take it if you want it." I was just taking the gourd by the handle, being careful not to spill a drop, when a great big man in a gray uniform and a large revolver in his hand comes out of the passage, and swearing at me, as they did in the army, says, "Now, you rascal, you clear out here or I'll shoot you down like a dog!" I felt so mad I would have liked to run up to him and snatch the pistol out of his hand and shoot him myself; but I did not have the courage, that is the truth of it, and I knew also I must not get my friends into trouble before we got to the soldiers again. When I came back to where Flora stood I saw she had dropped down upon a big rock they used to get on horseback by, and when I spoke to her she said she could not get any further. That finished me, and I swore to God Almighty I would have something for her or take a man's life. But just then something came between me and her, and when I looked up there was the old lady with the gourd in her hand and a piece of corn-bread I had not seen before, and she said: "Never mind my son, boy; he is in bad humor because all our servants have left us in a body yesterday and taken our horses with them. Poor child, what is the matter with her?" And then she took Flora's hand in hers and rubbed it, and told her to sit up and eat and not to cry any more. I talked to her too, and after a while she did sit up, and the way the milk and the bread went! It would have been a pleasure to me to see how she enjoyed it; but I was terribly hungry myself, and I counted every mouthful she took and every gulp that went down. When she had done, she stood up and looked much better, and then she thanked the old lady, as she had learned to do from Miss Lucy. The old lady had big tears in her eyes and looked mighty sad; she said something about God's Providence, which I did not understand, and about somebody's being ground between the upper and the nether millstone, which, I think, is somewhere in the Bible.
We had to walk fast enough to overtake the others, who had gotten far ahead of us, and it was late in the evening when we saw them all standing in a crowd together on a high place. The sun was just about setting, and the sky was golden, and as we looked at them we could see every ray of their clothes and every hair on their head. They all talked very loud, even Uncle Bob, who seemed to be very angry. We came up slowly, for we were terribly tired, and Flora could hardly drag one foot after the other. When we came up to where they stood, we saw we were on the side of the canal, and there on the tow-path sat Aunt Hannah, crying and screaming all together, and the others stood around her and looked as angry as could be. We pressed close up to Aunt Betsy, and I asked her in a whisper what was the matter. "Oh, Oby!" she said, "just think of it, Aunt Hannah was the first to see the canal, and she walks right up to where we now are and takes her poor little baby--it was not more than two months old--and before we knew what she was about she had thrown it into the water, and there it lies now. Oh, Oby, these are awful times! God have mercy upon us!" [...]
Flora got up and followed me, but she did not say a word. The tears were just running down her cheeks, and she did not mind it in the least. Uncle Bob was driving along on the tow-path, and we all followed in a long string, very slowly. At last we came to another turn, and there, right before us, lay a big mill, and behind it the town. On the mill-race stood a soldier in blue, and I could have shouted aloud, for now I knew our troubles would surely be at an end. I do not know what made me so bold, but I walked right up to the soldier and asked him if he did not know somebody that wanted a really good servant. He looked at me and then at Flora, who was standing behind me, and said: "You mean two good servants, don't you? I can't afford keeping a servant, but there is the sutler; I heard him inquire a little while ago for a handy fellow, who understood horses and knew how to make coffee and such things."
I hardly let him finish, for that was exactly what I was good for, and Flora made beautiful coffee. I just asked him where the sutler was, and when he showed me some way down the street a splendid team of four gray mules, standing before a large, fine house, and said that was the sutler's wagon, I took hold of Flora's hand and ran down as fast as I could. But when I came between the mules and the house I saw a whole crowd of servants standing around the door and crying out: "Take me, master, take me!" I thought it was all over, and I had lost my first and last chance, when Flora suddenly let go my hand and fell down like a log of wood, right between the wheels of the wagon. I tried to lift her up, but there was such a crowd, and the mules began to kick, and I thought she was going to die right away. Just then a man who had been inside the wagon popped his head out, and seeing Flora lying there, he asked: "Hallo, what is the matter, my man?" I told him as well as I could, and begged him for mercy's sake to help me, for Flora was sure enough dying. He laughed and stepped down leisurely over the swingle-trees, with a piece of hard tack in one hand and a bottle in the other. He poured some out of the bottle into his hand and rubbed her head with it, then he poured some down between her teeth, and when I could see next, she was sitting up with her head leaning against the wheel, opening her eyes as if she had been fast asleep, and munching a little bread in her mouth. I thanked the gentleman for having saved her life, but he only laughed the more. Then he asked me if I was not hungry too; and before I could say a word he pushed a whole pile of crackers into my hands. When Flora was all right again, he asked us what we were going to do with ourselves, and we told him as fast as we could, for we were both mighty grateful to him for his kindness. Then he told us that he was the sutler himself, and that if we promised to do well and be faithful servants to him he might find something to do for us both. He called to his clerk, who was in the house, and told him to see to it that we got a place to sleep in and some supper. When I looked a little around me I saw they had a beautiful flag flying from the top of the house, and that was the first night I slept under the Stars and Stripes, a free man.
The Enchanted Bluff
By Willa Sibert Cather
We had our swim before sundown, and while we were cooking our supper the oblique rays of light made a dazzling glare on the white sand about us. The translucent red ball itself sank behind the brown stretches of corn field as we sat down to eat, and the warm layer of air that had rested over the water and our clean sand-bar grew fresher and smelled of the rank iron-weed and sunflowers growing on the flatter shore. The river was brown and sluggish, like any other of the half-dozen streams that water the Nebraska corn lands. On one shore was an irregular line of bald clay bluffs where a few scrub-oaks with thick trunks and flat, twisted tops threw light shadows on the long grass. The western shore was low and level, with corn fields that stretched to the sky-line, and all along the water's edge were little sandy coves and beaches where slim cottonwoods and willow saplings flickered.
The turbulence of the river in springtime discouraged milling, and, beyond keeping the old red bridge in repair, the busy farmers did not concern themselves with the stream; so the Sandtown boys were left in undisputed possession. In the autumn we hunted quail through the miles of stubble and fodder land along the flat shore, and, after the winter skating season was over and the ice had gone out, the spring freshets and flooded bottoms gave us our great excitement of the year. The channel was never the same for two successive seasons. Every spring the swollen stream undermined a bluff to the east, or bit out a few acres of corn field to the west and whirled the soil away to deposit it in spumy mud banks somewhere else. When the water fell low in midsummer, new sand-bars were thus exposed to dry and whiten in the August sun. Sometimes these were banked so firmly that the fury of the next freshet failed to unseat them; the little willow seedlings emerged triumphantly from the yellow froth, broke into spring leaf, shot up into summer growth, and with their mesh of roots bound together the moist sand beneath them against the batterings of another April. Here and there a cottonwood soon glittered among them, quivering in the low current of air that, even on breathless days when the dust hung like smoke above the wagon road, trembled along the face of the water.
It was on such an island, in the third summer of its yellow green, that we built our watch-fire; not in the thicket of dancing willow wands, but on the level terrace of fine sand which had been added that spring; a little new bit of world, beautifully ridged with ripple marks, and strewn with the tiny skeletons of turtles and fish, all as white and dry as if they had been expertly cured. We had been careful not to mar the freshness of the place, although we often swam out to it on summer evenings and lay on the sand to rest.
This was our last watch-fire of the year, and there were reasons why I should remember it better than any of the others. Next week the other boys were to file back to their old places in the Sandtown High School, but I was to go up to the Divide to teach my first country school in the Norwegian district. I was already homesick at the thought of quitting the boys with whom I had always played; of leaving the river, and going up into a windy plain that was all windmills and corn fields and big pastures; where there was nothing wilful or unmanageable in the landscape, no new islands, and no chance of unfamiliar birds--such as often followed the watercourses.
Other boys came and went and used the river for fishing or skating, but we six were sworn to the spirit of the stream, and we were friends mainly because of the river. There were the two Hassler boys, Fritz and Otto, sons of the little German tailor. They were the youngest of us; ragged boys of ten and twelve, with sunburned hair, weather-stained faces, and pale blue eyes. Otto, the elder, was the best mathematician in school, and clever at his books, but he always dropped out in the spring term as if the river could not get on without him. He and Fritz caught the fat, horned catfish and sold them about the town, and they lived so much in the water that they were as brown and sandy as the river itself.
There was Percy Pound, a fat, freckled boy with chubby cheeks, who took half a dozen boys' story-papers and was always being kept in for reading detective stories behind his desk. There was Tip Smith, destined by his freckles and red hair to be the buffoon in all our games, though he walked like a timid little old man and had a funny, cracked laugh. Tip worked hard in his father's grocery store every afternoon, and swept it out before school in the morning. Even his recreations were laborious. He collected cigarette cards and tin tobacco-tags indefatigably, and would sit for hours humped up over a snarling little scroll-saw which he kept in his attic. His dearest possessions were some little pill-bottles that purported to contain grains of wheat from the Holy Land, water from the Jordan and the Dead Sea, and earth from the Mount of Olives. His father had bought these dull things from a Baptist missionary who peddled them, and Tip seemed to derive great satisfaction from their remote origin.
The tall boy was Arthur Adams. He had fine hazel eyes that were almost too reflective and sympathetic for a boy, and such a pleasant voice that we all loved to hear him read aloud. Even when he had to read poetry aloud at school, no one ever thought of laughing. To be sure, he was not at school very much of the time. He was seventeen and should have finished the High School the year before, but he was always off somewhere with his gun. Arthur's mother was dead, and his father, who was feverishly absorbed in promoting schemes, wanted to send the boy away to school and get him off his hands; but Arthur always begged off for another year and promised to study. I remember him as a tall, brown boy with an intelligent face, always lounging among a lot of us little fellows, laughing at us oftener than with us, but such a soft, satisfied laugh that we felt rather flattered when we provoked it. In after-years people said that Arthur had been given to evil ways even as a lad, and it is true that we often saw him with the gambler's sons and with old Spanish Fanny's boy, but if he learned anything ugly in their company he never betrayed it to us. We would have followed Arthur anywhere, and I am bound to say that he led us into no worse places than the cattail marshes and the stubble fields. These, then, were the boys who camped with me that summer night upon the sand-bar.
After we finished our supper we beat the willow thicket for driftwood. By the time we had collected enough, night had fallen, and the pungent, weedy smell from the shore increased with the coolness. We threw ourselves down about the fire and made another futile effort to show Percy Pound the Little Dipper. We had tried it often before, but he could never be got past the big one.
"You see those three big stars just below the handle, with the bright one in the middle?" said Otto Hassler; "that's Orion's belt, and the bright one is the clasp." I crawled behind Otto's shoulder and sighted up his arm to the star that seemed perched upon the tip of his steady forefinger. The Hassler boys did seine-fishing at night, and they knew a good many stars.
Percy gave up the Little Dipper and lay back on the sand, his hands clasped under his head. "I can see the North Star," he announced, contentedly, pointing toward it with his big toe. "Any one might get lost and need to know that."
We all looked up at it.
"How do you suppose Columbus felt when his compass didn't point north any more?" Tip asked.
Otto shook his head. "My father says that there was another North Star once, and that maybe this one won't last always. I wonder what would happen to us down here if anything went wrong with it?"
Arthur chuckled. "I wouldn't worry, Ott. Nothing's apt to happen to it in your time. Look at the Milky Way! There must be lots of good dead Indians."
We lay back and looked, meditating, at the dark cover of the world. The gurgle of the water had become heavier. We had often noticed a mutinous, complaining note in it at night, quite different from its cheerful daytime chuckle, and seeming like the voice of a much deeper and more powerful stream. Our water had always these two moods: the one of sunny complaisance, the other of inconsolable, passionate regret.
"Queer how the stars are all in sort of diagrams," remarked Otto. "You could do most any proposition in geometry with 'em. They always look as if they meant something. Some folks say everybody's fortune is all written out in the stars, don't they?"
"They believe so in the old country," Fritz affirmed.
But Arthur only laughed at him. "You're thinking of Napoleon, Fritzey. He had a star that went out when he began to lose battles. I guess the stars don't keep any close tally on Sandtown folks."
We were speculating on how many times we could count a hundred before the evening star went down behind the corn fields, when some one cried, "There comes the moon, and it's as big as a cart wheel!"
We all jumped up to greet it as it swam over the bluffs behind us. It came up like a galleon in full sail; an enormous, barbaric thing, red as an angry heathen god.
"When the moon came up red like that, the Aztecs used to sacrifice their prisoners on the temple top," Percy announced.
"Go on, Perce. You got that out of Golden Days . Do you believe that, Arthur?" I appealed.
Arthur answered, quite seriously: "Like as not. The moon was one of their gods. When my father was in Mexico City he saw the stone where they used to sacrifice their prisoners."
As we dropped down by the fire again some one asked whether the Mound-Builders were older than the Aztecs. When we once got upon the Mound-Builders we never willingly got away from them, and we were still conjecturing when we heard a loud splash in the water.
"Must have been a big cat jumping," said Fritz. "They do sometimes. They must see bugs in the dark. Look what a track the moon makes!"
There was a long, silvery streak on the water, and where the current fretted over a big log it boiled up like gold pieces.
"Suppose there ever was any gold hid away in this old river?" Fritz asked. He lay like a little brown Indian, close to the fire, his chin on his hand and his bare feet in the air. His brother laughed at him, but Arthur took his suggestion seriously.
"Some of the Spaniards thought there was gold up here somewhere. Seven cities chuck full of gold, they had it, and Coronado and his men came up to hunt it. The Spaniards were all over this country once."
Percy looked interested. "Was that before the Mormons went through?"
We all laughed at this.
"Long enough before. Before the Pilgrim Fathers, Perce. Maybe they came along this very river. They always followed the watercourses."
"I wonder where this river really does begin?" Tip mused. That was an old and a favorite mystery which the map did not clearly explain. On the map the little black line stopped somewhere in western Kansas; but since rivers generally rose in mountains, it was only reasonable to suppose that ours came from the Rockies. Its destination, we knew, was the Missouri, and the Hassler boys always maintained that we could embark at Sandtown in flood-time, follow our noses, and eventually arrive at New Orleans. Now they took up their old argument. "If us boys had grit enough to try it, it wouldn't take no time to get to Kansas City and St. Joe."
We began to talk about the places we wanted to go to. The Hassler boys wanted to see the stock-yards in Kansas City, and Percy wanted to see a big store in Chicago. Arthur was interlocutor and did not betray himself.
"Now it's your turn, Tip."
Tip rolled over on his elbow and poked the fire, and his eyes looked shyly out of his queer, tight little face. "My place is awful far away. My uncle Bill told me about it."
Tip's Uncle Bill was a wanderer, bitten with mining fever, who had drifted into Sandtown with a broken arm, and when it was well had drifted out again.
"Where is it?
"Aw, it's down in New Mexico somewheres. There aren't no railroads or anything. You have to go on mules, and you run out of water before you get there and have to drink canned tomatoes."
"Well, go on, kid. What's it like when you do get there?
Tip sat tip and excitedly began his story.
"There's a big red rock there that goes right up out of the sand for about nine hundred feet. The country's flat all around it, and this here rock goes up all by itself, like a monument. They call it the Enchanted Bluff down there, because no white man has ever been on top of it. The sides are smooth rock, and straight up, like a wall. The Indians say that hundreds of years ago, before the Spaniards came, there was a village away up there in the air. The tribe that lived there had some sort of steps, made out of wood and bark, hung down over the face of the bluff, and the braves went down to hunt and carried water up in big jars swung on their backs. They kept a big supply of water and dried meat up there, and never went down except to hunt. They were a peaceful tribe that made cloth and pottery, and they went up there to get out of the wars. You see, they could pick off any war party that tried to get up their little steps. The Indians say they were a handsome people, and they had some sort of a queer religion. Uncle Bill thinks they were Cliff-Dwellers who had got into trouble and left home. They weren't fighters, anyhow.
"One time the braves were down hunting and an awful storm came up--a kind of waterspout--and when they got back to their rock they found their little staircase had been all broken to pieces, and only a few steps were left hanging away up in the air. While they were camped at the foot of the rock, wondering what to do, a war party from the north came along and massacred 'em to a man, with all the old folks and women looking on from the rock. Then the war party went on south and left the village to get down the best way they could. Of course they never got down. They starved to death up there, and when the war party came back on their way north, they could hear the children crying from the edge of the bluff where they had crawled out, but they didn't see a sign of a grown Indian, and nobody has ever been up there since."
We exclaimed at this dolorous legend and sat up.
"There couldn't have been many people up there," Percy demurred. "How big is the top, Tip?"
"Oh, pretty big. Big enough so that the rock doesn't look nearly as tall as it is. The top's bigger than the base. The bluff is sort of worn away for several hundred feet up. That's one reason it's so hard to climb."
I asked how the Indians got up, in the first place.
"Nobody knows how they got up or when. A hunting party came along once and saw that there was a town up there, and that was all."
Otto rubbed his chin and looked thoughtful. "Of course there must be some way to get up there. Couldn't people get a rope over someway and pull a ladder up?"
Tip's little eyes were shining with excitement. "I know a way. Me and Uncle Bill talked it all over. There's a kind of rocket that would take a rope over--life-savers use 'em--and then you could hoist a rope-ladder and peg it down at the bottom and make it tight with guy-ropes on the other side. I'm going to climb that there bluff, and I've got it all planned out."
Fritz asked what he expected to find when he got up there.
"Bones, maybe, or the ruins of their town, or pottery, or some of their idols. There might be 'most anything up there. Anyhow, I want to see."
"Sure nobody else has been up there, Tip?" Arthur asked.
"Dead sure. Hardly anybody ever goes down there. Some hunters tried to cut steps in the rock once, but they didn't get higher than a man can reach. The Bluff's all red granite, and Uncle Bill thinks it's a boulder the glaciers left. It's a queer place, anyhow. Nothing but cactus and desert for hundreds of miles, and yet right under the bluff there's good water and plenty of grass. That's why the bison used to go down there."
Suddenly we heard a scream above our fire, and jumped up to see a dark, slim bird floating southward far above us--a whooping-crane, we knew by her cry and her long neck. We ran to the edge of the island, hoping we might see her alight, but she wavered southward along the rivercourse until we lost her. The Hassler boys declared that by the look of the heavens it must be after midnight, so we threw more wood on our fire, put on our jackets, and curled down in the warm sand. Several of us pretended to doze, but I fancy we were really thinking about Tip's Bluff and the extinct people. Over in the wood the ring-doves were calling mournfully to one another, and once we heard a dog bark, far away. "Somebody getting into old Tommy's melon patch," Fritz murmured, sleepily, but nobody answered him. By and by Percy spoke out of the shadow.
"Say, Tip, when you go down there will you take me with you?"
"Suppose one of us beats you down there, Tip?"
"Whoever gets to the Bluff first has got to promise to tell the rest of us exactly what he finds," remarked one of the Hassler boys, and to this we all readily assented.
Somewhat reassured, I dropped off to sleep. I must have dreamed about a race for the Bluff, for I awoke in a kind of fear that other people were getting ahead of me and that I was losing my chance. I sat up in my damp clothes and looked at the other boys, who lay tumbled in uneasy attitudes about the dead fire. It was still dark, but the sky was blue with the last wonderful azure of night. The stars glistened like crystal globes, and trembled as if they shone through a depth of clear water. Even as I watched, they began to pale and the sky brightened. Day came suddenly, almost instantaneously. I turned for another look at the blue night, and it was gone. Everywhere the birds began to call, and all manner of little insects began to chirp and hop about in the willows. A breeze sprang up from the west and brought the heavy smell of ripened corn. The boys rolled over and shook themselves. We stripped and plunged into the river just as the sun came up over the windy bluffs.
When I came home to Sandtown at Christmas time, we skated out to our island and talked over the whole project of the Enchanted Bluff, renewing our resolution to find it.
Although that was twenty years ago, none of us have ever climbed the Enchanted Bluff. Percy Pound is a stockbroker in Kansas City and will go nowhere that his red touring-car cannot carry him. Otto Hassler went on the railroad and lost his foot braking; after which he and Fritz succeeded their father as the town tailors.
Arthur sat about the sleepy little town all his life--he died before he was twenty-five. The last time I saw him, when I was home on one of my college vacations, he was sitting in a steamer-chair under a cottonwood tree in the little yard behind one of the two Sandtown saloons. He was very untidy and his hand was not steady, but when he rose, unabashed, to greet me, his eyes were as clear and warm as ever. When I had talked with him for an hour and heard him laugh again, I wondered how it was that when Nature had taken such pains with a man, from his hands to the arch of his long foot, she had ever lost him in Sandtown. He joked about Tip Smith's Bluff, and declared he was going down there just as soon as the weather got cooler; he thought the Grand Cañon might be worth while, too.
I was perfectly sure when I left him that he would never get beyond the high plank fence and the comfortable shade of the cottonwood. And, indeed, it was under that very tree that he died one summer morning.
Tip Smith still talks about going to New Mexico. He married a slatternly, unthrifty country girl, has been much tied to a perambulator, and has grown stooped and gray from irregular meals and broken sleep. But the worst of his difficulties are now over, and he has, as he says, come into easy water. When I was last in Sandtown I walked home with him late one moonlight night, after he had balanced his cash and shut up his store. We took the long way around and sat down on the schoolhouse steps, and between us we quite revived the romance of the lone red rock and the extinct people. Tip insists that he still means to go down there, but he thinks now he will wait until his boy, Bert, is old enough to go with him. Bert has been let into the story, and thinks of nothing but the Enchanted Bluff.
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