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- The Battle Ground - 2/71 -
with a mother's yearning over broken ties.
A bright mulatto led, standing at full height, and her rich notes rolled like an organ beneath the shrill plaint of her companions. She was large, deep-bosomed, and comely after her kind, and in her careless gestures there was something of the fine fervour of the artist. She sang boldly, her full body rocking from side to side, her bared arms outstretched, her long throat swelling like a bird's above the gaudy handkerchief upon her breast.
The others followed her, half artlessly, half in imitation, mingling with their words grunts of self-approval. A grin ran from face to face as if thrown by the grotesque flash of a lantern. Only a little black woman crouching in one corner bowed herself and wept.
The children had fallen back against the stone wall, where they hung staring.
"Good-by, Dolly!" they called cheerfully, and the woman answered with a long-drawn, hopeless whine:--
"Gawd A'moughty bless you twel we Meet agin."
Zeke broke from the group and ran a few steps beside the wagon, shaking the outstretched hands.
The driver nodded peaceably to him, and cut with a single stroke of his whip an intricate figure in the sand of the road. "Git up an' come along with us, sonny," he said cordially; but Zeke only grinned in reply, and the children laughed and waved their handkerchiefs from the wall. "Good-by, Dolly, and Mirandy, and Sukey Sue!" they shouted, while the women, bowing over the rolling wheels, tossed back a fragment of the song:--
"We hope ter meet you in heaven, whar we'll Part no mo', Whar we'll part no mo'; Gawd A'moughty bless you twel we Me--et a--gin."
"Twel we meet agin," chirped the little girls, tripping into the chorus.
Then, with a last rumble, the wagon went by, and Zeke came trotting back and straddled the stone wall, where he sat looking down upon the loose poppies that fringed the yellowed edge of the wheat.
"Dey's gwine way-way f'om hyer, Marse Champe," he said dreamily. "Dey's gwine right spang over dar whar de sun done come f'om."
"Colonel Minor bought 'em," Champe explained, sliding from the wall, "and he bought Dolly dirt cheap--I heard Uncle say so--" With a grin he looked up at the small black figure perched upon the crumbling stones. "You'd better look out how you steal any more of my fishing lines, or I'll sell you," he threatened.
"Gawd er live! I ain' stole one on 'em sence las' mont'," protested Zeke, as he turned a somersault into the road, "en dat warn' stealin' 'case hit warn' wu'th it," he added, rising to his feet and staring wistfully after the wagon as it vanished in a sunny cloud of dust.
Over the broad meadows, filled with scattered wild flowers, the sound of the chant still floated, with a shrill and troubled sweetness, upon the wind. As he listened the little negro broke into a jubilant refrain, beating his naked feet in the dust:--
"Gawd A'moughty bless you twel we Me--et a--gin."
Then he looked slyly up at his young master.
"I 'low dar's one thing you cyarn do, Marse Champe."
"I bet there isn't," retorted Champe.
"You kin sell me ter Marse Minor--but Lawd, Lawd, you cyarn mek mammy leave off whuppin' me. You cyarn do dat widout you 'uz a real ole marster hese'f."
"I reckon I can," said Champe, indignantly. "I'd just like to see her lay hands on you again. I can make mammy leave off whipping him, can't I, Betty?"
But Betty, with a toss of her head, took her revenge.
"'Tain't so long since yo' mammy whipped you," she rejoined. "An' I reckon 'tain't so long since you needed it."
As she stood there, a spirited little figure, in a patch of faint sunshine, her hair threw a halo of red gold about her head. When she smiled--and she smiled now, saucily enough--her eyes had a trick of narrowing until they became mere beams of light between her lashes. Her eyes would smile, though her lips were as prim as a preacher's.
Virginia gave a timid pull at Betty's frock. "Champe's goin' home with us," she said, "his uncle told him to--You're goin' home with us, ain't you, Champe?"
"I ain't goin' home," responded Betty, jerking from Virginia's grasp. She stood warm yet resolute in the middle of the road, her bonnet swinging in her hands. "I ain't goin' home," she repeated.
Turning his back squarely upon her, Champe broke into a whistle of unconcern. "You'd just better come along," he called over his shoulder as he started off. "You'd just better come along, or you'll catch it."
"I ain't comin'," answered Betty, defiantly, and as they passed away kicking the dust before them, she swung her bonnet hard, and spoke aloud to herself. "I ain't comin'," she said stubbornly.
The distance lengthened; the three small figures passed the wheat field, stopped for an instant to gather green apples that had fallen from a stray apple tree, and at last slowly dwindled into the white streak of the road. She was alone on the deserted turnpike.
For a moment she hesitated, caught her breath, and even took three steps on the homeward way; then turning suddenly she ran rapidly in the opposite direction. Over the deepening shadows she sped as lightly as a hare.
At the end of a half mile, when her breath came in little pants, she stopped with a nervous start and looked about her. The loneliness seemed drawing closer like a mist, and the cry of a whip-poor-will from the little stream in the meadow sent frightened thrills, like needles, through her limbs.
Straight ahead the sun was setting in a pale red west, against which the mountains stood out as if sculptured in stone. On one side swept the pasture where a few sheep browsed; on the other, at the place where two roads met, there was a blasted tree that threw its naked shadow across the turnpike. Beyond the tree and its shadow a well-worn foot-path led to a small log cabin from which a streak of smoke was rising. Through the open door the single room within showed ruddy with the blaze of resinous pine.
The little girl daintily picked her way along the foot-path and through a short garden patch planted in onions and black-eyed peas. Beside a bed of sweet sage she faltered an instant and hung back. "Aunt Ailsey," she called tremulously, "I want to speak to you, Aunt Ailsey." She stepped upon the smooth round stone which served for a doorstep and looked into the room. "It's me, Aunt Ailsey! It's Betty Ambler," she said.
A slow shuffling began inside the cabin, and an old negro woman hobbled presently to the daylight and stood peering from under her hollowed palm. She was palsied with age and blear-eyed with trouble, and time had ironed all the kink out of the thin gray locks that straggled across her brow. She peered dimly at the child as one who looks from a great distance.
"I lay dat's one er dese yer ole hoot owls," she muttered querulously, "en ef'n 'tis, he des es well be a-hootin' along home, caze I ain' gwine be pestered wid his pranks. Dar ain' but one kind er somebody es will sass you at yo' ve'y do,' en dat's a hoot owl es is done loss count er de time er day--"
"I ain't an owl, Aunt Ailsey," meekly broke in Betty, "an' I ain't hootin' at you--"
Aunt Ailsey reached out and touched her hair. "You ain' none er Marse Peyton's chile," she said. "I'se done knowed de Amblers sence de fu'st one er dem wuz riz, en dar ain' never been a'er Ambler wid a carrot haid--"
The red ran from Betty's curls into her face, but she smiled politely as she followed Aunt Ailsey into the cabin and sat down in a split-bottomed chair upon the hearth. The walls were formed of rough, unpolished logs, and upon them, as against an unfinished background, the firelight threw reddish shadows of the old woman and the child. Overhead, from the uncovered rafters, hung several tattered sheepskins, and around the great fireplace there was a fringe of dead snakes and lizards, long since as dry as dust. Under the blazing logs, which filled the hut with an almost unbearable heat, an ashcake was buried beneath a little gravelike mound of ashes.
Aunt Ailsey took up a corncob pipe from the stones and fell to smoking. She sank at once into a senile reverie, muttering beneath her breath with short, meaningless grunts. Warm as the summer evening was, she shivered before the glowing logs.
For a time the child sat patiently watching the embers; then she leaned forward and touched the old woman's knee. "Aunt Ailsey, O Aunt Ailsey!"
Aunt Ailsey stirred wearily and crossed her swollen feet upon the hearth.
"Dar ain' nuttin' but a hoot owl dat'll sass you ter yo' face," she muttered, and, as she drew her pipe from her mouth, the gray smoke circled about her head.
The child edged nearer. "I want to speak to you, Aunt Ailsey," she said. She seized the withered hand and held it close in her own rosy ones. "I want you--O Aunt Ailsey, listen! I want you to conjure my hair coal black."
She finished with a gasp, and with parted lips sat waiting. "Coal black, Aunt Ailsey!" she cried again.
A sudden excitement awoke in the old woman's face; her hands shook and she leaned nearer. "Hi! who dat done tole you I could conjure, honey?" she demanded.
"Oh, you can, I know you can. You conjured back Sukey's lover from Eliza Lou, and you conjured all the pains out of Uncle Shadrach's leg." She fell on her knees and laid her head in the old woman's lap. "Conjure quick and I won't holler," she said.
"Gawd in heaven!" exclaimed Aunt Ailsey. Her dim old eyes brightened as she gently stroked the child's brow with her palsied fingers. "Dis yer ain' no way ter conjure, honey," she whispered. "You des wait twel de full er de
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