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- The Law of the Land - 5/49 -
"'Most any day?"
"Yessah. You better go on up to the house. The Cunnel will be right glad to see you. You're a stranger in these parts, I reckon? I'd be glad to have you stop down to my house, but it's three mile down the track, an' we hatter walk. You'd be mo' comfo'table heah, I reckon. Walk on up, and tell 'em to give you a place to set. My woman an' me, I reckon we got to git home now, suh. It's somethin' might be mighty serious."
"Yas, indeed," murmured Mrs. Bowles, "we got to git along."
"Thank you," said the stranger. "I am very much obliged to you, indeed. I believe I will wait here for just a little while, as you say. Good morning, sir. Good morning, madam."
He turned and walked slowly up the path toward the house, as the others pursued their way to the railroad track, down which they presently were plodding on their homeward journey. There was at least a little milk left in the pail when finally they reached their log cabin, with its yard full of pigs and chickens. Eagerly they scanned the sides of the railway embankment as they drew near, looking for signs of what they feared to see. One need not describe the fierce joy with which Sarah Ann Bowles fell upon little Sim, who was presently discovered, safe and dirty, knocking about upon the kitchen floor in abundant company of puppies, cats and chickens. As to the reproaches which she heaped upon her husband in her happiness, it is likewise unnecessary to dwell thereupon.
"I knowed he would be kilt," said Sarah Ann.
"But he _hain't_," said her husband, triumphantly. And for one time in their married life there seemed to be no possible way in which she might contradict him, which fact for her constituted a situation somewhat difficult.
"Well, 'tain't yo' fault ef he hain't," said she at length. The rest of her revenge she took upon the person of little Sim, whom she alternately chastened and embraced, to the great and grieved surprise of the latter, who remained ignorant of any existing or pending relation upon his part with the methods or the instruments of modern progress.
The new-comer at the Big House was a well-looking figure as he advanced up the path toward the white-pillared galleries. In height just above middle stature, and of rather spare habit of body, alert, compact and vigorous, he carried himself with a half-military self- respect, redeemed from aggressiveness by an open candor of face and the pleasant, forthright gaze of kindly blue-gray eyes. In spite of a certain gravity of mien, his eyes seemed wont to smile upon occasion, as witnessed divers little wrinkles at the corners. He was smooth- shaven, except for a well-trimmed dark mustache; the latter offering a distinct contrast to the color of his hair, which, apparently not in full keeping with his years, was lightly sprinkled with gray. Yet his carriage was assuredly not that of middle age, and indeed, the total of his personality, neither young nor old, neither callow nor acerb, neither lightly unreserved nor too gravely severe, offered certain problems not capable of instant solution. A hurried observer might have guessed his age within ten years but might have been wrong upon either side, and might have had an equal difficulty in classifying his residence or occupation.
Whatever might be said of this stranger, it was evident that he was not ill at ease in this environment; for as he met coming around the corner an old colored man, who, with a rag in one hand and a bottle in the other, seemed intent upon some errand at the dog kennel beyond, the visitor paused not in query or salutation, but tossed his umbrella to the servant and at the same time handed him his traveling-bag. "Take care of these. Bill," said he.
Bill, for that was indeed his name, placed the bag and umbrella upon the gallery floor, and with the air of owning the place himself, invited the visitor to enter the Big House.
"The Cunnel's not to home, suh," said Bill. "But you bettah come in and seddown. I'll go call the folks."
"Never mind," said the visitor. "I reckon I'll just walk around a little outside. I hear Colonel Blount is off on a bear hunt."
"Yassah," said Bill. "An' when he goes he mostly gits b'ah. I'se right 'spondent dis time, though, 'deed I is, suh."
"What's the matter?"
"Why, you see, suh," replied Bill, leaning comfortably back against a gallery post, "it's dis-away. I'm just goin' out to fix up old Hec's foot. He's ouah bestest b'ah-dog, but he got so blame biggoty, las' time he was out, stuck his foot right intoe a b'ah's mouth. Now, Hec's lef' home, an' me lef home to 'ten' to Hec. How kin Cunnel Blount git ary b'ah 'dout me and Hec along? I'se right 'spondent, dat's whut I is."
"Well, now, that's too bad," said the stranger, with a smile.
"Too bad? I reckon it sho' is. Fer, if Cunnel Blount don't git no b'ah--look out den, _I_ kin tell you."
"Gets his dander up, eh?"
"Dandah--dandah! You know him? Th'ain't no better boss, but ef he goes out huntin' b'ah an' don't get no _b'ah_--why, then th' ain't no reason goin' _do_ foh him."
"Is Mrs. Blount at home, Bill?"
"Th'ain't no Mrs. Blount, and I don't reckon they neveh will be. Cunnel too busy huntin' b'ah to git married. They's two ladies heah, no relation o' him; they done come heah a yeah er so ago, and they- all keeps house fer the Cunnel. That's Mrs. Ellison and her dahteh, Miss Lady. She's a pow'ful fine gal, Miss Lady."
"I don't know them," said the visitor.
"No, sah," said Bill. "They ain't been heah long. Dese heah low-down niggers liken to steal the Cunnel blin', he away so much. One day, he gits right mad. 'Lows he goin' to advehtize fer a housekeepah-lady. Then Mas' Henry 'Cherd--he's gemman been livin' couple o' yeahs 'er so down to near Vicksburg, some'rs; he's out huntin' now with the Cunnel--why, Mas' 'Cherd he 'lows he knows whah thah's a lady, jus' the thing. Law! Cunnel didn't spec' no real lady, you know, jes' wantin' housekeepah. But long comes this heah lady, Mrs. Ellison, an' brings this heah young lady, too--real quality. 'Miss Lady' we-all calls her, right to once. Orto see Cunnel Cal Blount den! 'Now, I reckon I kin go huntin' peaceful,' says he. So dem two tuk holt. Been heah ever since. Mas' 'Cherd, he has in min' this heah yallah gal, Delpheem. Right soon, heah come Delpheem 'long too. Reckon she runs the kitchen all right. Anyways we's got white folks in the parlah, whah they allus _orto_ be white folks."
"Well, you ought to thank your friend--what is his name--Ducherd-- Decherd? Seems as though I had heard that name, below somewhere."
"Yas, Mas' Henry 'Cherd. We does thank him. He sut'nly done fix us all up wid women-folks. We couldn't no _mo'_ git erlong 'dout Miss Lady now, 'n we could 'dout _me,_ er the Cunnel. But, _law!_ it don't make no diff'ence to Cunnel Blount who's heah or who ain't heah, he jest gotter hunt _b'ah._ You come 'long wid me, I could show you b'ah hides up stairs, b'ah hides on de roof, b'ah hides on de sheds, b'ah hides on de barn, and a tame b'ah hitched to the cotton-gin ovah thah."
"He seems to make a sort of specialty of bear, doesn't he? Got a pretty good pack, eh?"
"Pack? I should say we has! We got the bestest b'ah pack in Miss'ippi, er in de whole worl'. We sho' is fixed up fer huntin'. But, now, look heah, two three days ago the railroad kyahs done run ovah a fine colt whut de Cunnel was raisin' fer a saddle hoss--kilt it plumb daid. That riled him a heap. 'Damn the railroad kyahs,' sez he. An' den off he goes huntin', sort o' riled like. Now, ef he comes back, and ef he don't git no _b'ah,_ why, you won't see old Bill 'round heah fer 'bout fo' days."
"You seem to know him pretty well."
"Know him? I orto. Raised wid him, an' lived heah all my life. Now, when you see Cunnel Blount come home, he'll come up 'long dat lane, him an' de dogs, an' dem no 'count niggers he done took 'long wid him; an' when he gits up to whah de lane crosses de railroad track, ef he come ridin' 'long easy like, now an' den tootin' his hawn to so'ht o' let us know he's a-comin'--ef he do dat-away, dat's all right,--dat's all right." Here the garrulous old servant shook his head. "But ef he don't--well den--"
"That's bad, if he doesn't, eh?"
"Yassah. Ef he don' come a-blowin' an' ef he _do_ come _a-singin'_, den look out! I allus did notice, ef Cunnel Blount 'gins to sing 'ligious hymns, somethin's wrong, and somethin' gwine ter drap. He hain't right easy ter git along wid when he's a-singin'. But if you'll 'scuse me, suh, I gotter take care o' old Hec. Jest make yourself to home, suh,--anyways you like."
The visitor contented himself with wandering about the yard, until at length he seated himself on the board-pile beneath the evergreen trees, and so sank into an idle reverie, his chin in his hand, and his eyes staring out across the wide field. His face, now in repose, seemed more meditative; indeed one might have called it almost mournful. The shoulders drooped a trifle, as though their owner for the time forgot to pull himself together. He sat thus for some time, and the sun was beginning to encroach upon his refuge, when suddenly he was aroused by the faint and far-off sound of a hunting horn. That the listener distinguished it at such a distance might have argued that he himself had known hound and saddle in his day; yet he readily caught the note of the short hunting horn universally used by the southern hunters, and recognized the assembly call for the hunting pack. As it came near, all the dogs that remained in the kennel yards heard it and raged to escape from their confinement. Old Bill came hobbling around the corner. Steps were heard on the gallery, and the visitor's face showed a slight uneasiness as he caught a glimpse of a certain spot now suddenly made alive by the flutter of a soft gown
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