THE canvas-covered tobacco wagon had been jolting over the frozen track of Little North Road since before dawn. On the seat huddled two small figures, almost submerged in a welter of old quilts. Silent they sat, swaying instinctively to the pitch and roll of the wagon, as the steel tires climbed screechingly from rut to rut.
The larger, a white boy, held the sagging reins loosely in one hand, allowing the mules their own way. His eyes were fixed abstractedly on the road ahead; his shoulders bowed, as if under weighty responsibilities.
The clink of the breast chains, in soft accompaniment to the clack-clack of the mules’ shoes on the frozen ground, and the rumble and creak of the heavily loaded wagon came vaguely to him as homely, comforting sounds, in the deserted stillness of early morning. And the intimate mellow-peach fragrance of Virginia sun-cured tobacco, together with the everyday mule-and-harness smell, drifted over him comfortingly, too.
With a sigh, he roused from his reverie and quickened the lagging team. Glancing at the small head resting on his shoulder, muffled in an old slouch hat brought down about the ears with a fragment of blanket, his face softened into a whimsical smile. With a vigorous shrug, he shouted: —
‘Wake up, Nubbin! Sun’s up, nigger!’
The little form straightened with a start. An ashy-black hand came out from the chaos of covers and pulled off the headpiece. Slowly he rubbed his face, scratched his head, and rolled his big eyes at his companion.
‘Huccome you “niggah” me?’ he demanded, frowning. ‘I got big graveyard in de woods full o’ white boys what call me “niggah.”’
The white boy threw back his head and laughed; then, turning suddenly, with an explosive ‘Baa!’ butted his coonskin cap roundly against the black ear.
‘Ba-a! Phut! Phut!’ went the little darky, jumping from the seat; and, bridling like an angry goat, sent his bullet head thump against the white boy’s ribs.
‘Ouch! I give up! I give up!’ capitulated the latter.
‘You ain’ gwine call me “niggah” no mo’?’
‘No! No!’ acceded the white boy, shrinking into his corner. ‘Cross my heart — and double cross,’ and his mittened hand made youth’s inviolable sign of the double cross.
‘Dat’s mo’ like hit — an’ you ’member hit too, Luther Patten,’ grinned the negro. With a final admonitory ‘Baa!’ and a half-dancing shuffle of his bigshod feet on the wagon bottom, he dived to the seat and snatched the quilts about him.
‘Huccome you don’ git col’ like me? Huccome don’ no white folks git col’ like niggah?’ he asked querulously.
Luther smiled at the forbidden word; but of course it carried a vastly different meaning when used by Nubbin’s race — an intangible, shadowy difference to the white mind, but to the black a difference as clear-cut as a cameo.
He answered with an imitative question : —
Huccome nig — colored folks’ heads harder than white folks’?’ Wrinkling his brow, he pondered, ‘I rully do wonder what makes yo’ head so tough. Don’t it hurt you, Nub, buttin’ ol’ calves and things? Just buttin’ a pile of bags hurts me somep’n awful. I don’t reckon,’ he continued resignedly, ‘ I ever will be a butter. But,’ he added, brightening, ‘I can drive tobacco to Richmond — that’s more ’n you can do. ’
‘ Hunh! ’ disparaged Nubbin. ‘Drivin’ ol’ ’bacca down ain’ nothin’, but buttin’ is buttin’.’
Pausing, he continued as if in soliloquy: ‘But I ain’ no buttah a-tall. You des oughter seen my gran’pa. He war de buttin’es’ one in de county — in de whole worl, I reckon. He kill hese’f buttin’ —’
‘Killed himself buttin’!'
‘Yeah. A white man offer ’im two dollah ef he butt de sto’ do’. Well, de wo’d was n’t more’n outen he mouf ’fo’ gran’pa had back hese’f back, an’ wid a shake er he haid ’way he went , buckin’ an’ jumpin’, scerse touchin’ de groun’; an’ when putty nigh de do’ he give a “Baa!” an’ des nachully sailed th’u de air, an’— blam! He hit it, an’ went clear th’u it, mon, up to he shoulders.
‘Dey had a hard time gittin’ ’im out, an’ de man put de two dollah in he han’, an’ say he war de buttin’es’ niggah in de county; but gran’pa des give one puny “Baa” an’ pass out, right dar. De hole stay in de do’ fo’ fifty—fo’ hund’ed year; an’ ’t would be dar yit ef de sto’ had n’t bu’ned. I reckon I got buttin’ blood.’
Luther sat musing, without comment.
After a silence, Nubbin continued prophetically, ‘One dese days I gwine be de buttin’es’ niggah in Louisa County — maybe in de whole worl’.’
He added the last words softly, as if almost afraid to utter a vision so overpowering. Sighing, he pulled the quilts to his chin, squirmed closer to Luther, and drifted into reverie. No word broke the silence, as the wagon rocked on down Little North Road.
Suddenly Nubbin exclaimed, ‘D’ar Jesus! Look who heah!’
Abreast of the wagon, just out of sight, trotted a diminutive black-andwhite beagle. With his mouth lolling in a satisfied grin, he jogged placidly along, seemingly intent on his own affairs.
‘Git! Git home, you ol’ sneaker, ’fore I tan you!’ yelled Luther, hurrying to dismount.
But the short stubby legs of the hound had suddenly developed surprising speed. Before either boy could find a loose clod in the roadway, the dog was facing his enemies well out of range. Slowly he sank to his haunches, head cocked to one side questioningly. A barrage of frozen clods forced him to dive into the thick woods, where he vanished.
The victors meandered back toward the wagon. They skipped, galloped, and pushed each other into ruts. Nubbin, in his cracked man’s shoes that seemed merely to dangle on his small splay feet, half shuffled, half waltzed, a man’s big sack coat flopping grotesquely about his knees, the long sleeves completely hiding his hands.
Suddenly he became a buzzard. Holding his arms out rigidly, the sleeve ends dangling like broken pinions, he sailed and circled, swooped and banked down the road. Another, less natural buzzard materialized behind the first, following its track, reproducing its every movement. The buzzards came up to the wagon with such a grandiose sweep that the drooping mules were startled from their dozing.
Jolting along again, the boys chuckled and giggled. They certainly had scared ’at ol’ Spot dog. Guess he was home by now. But wa’n’t he some kind of a rabbit dog, though! And did n’t he have sense? And he was a nice ol’ dog. A hundred dollars — no, ten hundred dollars would n’t buy ’at ol’ Spot. No sir-re-e!
As the morning wore on, Nubbin’s imagination began to picture the contents of the big lunch basket under the seat. Frequently he wiped his lips, but they would not stay dry. Feeling that he had reached the limit of all human endurance, he leaned far over the dashboard and carefully scrutinized the sun.
‘Unhu-n-h! Gittin’close tow’ds dinnah time,’ he asserted.
Luther cut a mischievous eye at him: ‘You’re crazy! ’Tain’ ’leven yet. Don’ guess we’ll eat till we get to Coleman’s store.’
Frowningly, Nubbin expostulated: ‘ You nevah could tell time by de sun — an’ you know hit.’
The argument was waxing vehement when a man on horseback drew up to inquire after Mr. Patten. Luther was much obliged to Mr. Thorpe: Yes, his father was a lot better, but a broken leg was a tedious thing. Yes, sir, they were taking the tobacco down. Yes, Luther knew the roads — he’d been down before with his father. Anyway, they hoped to pick up other wagons after they turned into the Big Road — at least find them about sundown at the Deep Run Camping Ground.
‘Well, you’re a pretty spunky boy, taking the tobacco down with just that little nigger. Yo’ pa ought to be proud of you,’ praised the man.
Luther flushed, but belittled the undertaking. Nubbin rolled his eyes at the white man.
Thorpe asked if Luther was n’t afraid he’d lose his dog in the big town.
‘Dog?’ asked the boy in surprise. ‘What dog?’
‘Ain’t that yo’ lil hound under the wagon ? ’
With a flurry of quilts the boys were out on the ground. Slowly wagging his drooping tail. Spot looked up beseechingly from under his lids, and, rolling gently over on his back, held up his front paws, crooked at the joints like little hands.
‘Now ain’t dat de beatin’es’!’ Nubbin exclaimed, mouth spreading in a wide grin. ‘’T ain’ no use whup ’im now,’ he interposed hastily, as Luther flourished the whip. ‘He too fur fo’ drive ’im home.’
‘The nigger is right, Luther; you’ll have to take him along,’ chuckled Thorpe.
‘Oh, darn the ol’ dog!’ exclaimed Luther. He sprang to the seat and started the team so abruptly that the little negro was caught with one leg over the dashboard. Scrambling in, glaring white-eyed at his partner, he tucked the covers about himself in silence.
Finally Luther drew in the team beside a small brook, and ordered Nubbin to unhitch and water, while he built a fire. With the coffeepot steaming away, and the heaping lunch basket before him, Luther’s irritation melted. Nubbin, happy at his friend’s softening mood, and utterly unable to watch quietly the arrangement of the mouthwatering buttered biscuits, spareribs, sausage, and apple puffs, shufflestepped in circles and, patting his hands, eyes half closed, sang softly in jig tempo: — ‘Sif’ de meal an’ gi’ me de hus’,
Bake de bread an’ gi’ me de crus’,
Ho mart de Juba, Juba.
Juba dis an’ Juba dat,
Eat de lean an’ leave de fat,
Ho mart de Juba.’
Spot was in the near background, keeping one eye on the basket, the other alert for any wild thing he might nose out of the brush piles. Suddenly a rabbit jumped from under his very feet! The basket was forgotten, the boys’ yelling commands unheeded. Fainter and fainter grew the dog’s yaps, as the rabbit lured him on into the tangles of the deep woods.
With intermittent discussion of rabbit dogs in general, — but particularly of ol’ Spot and his qualities, — biscuits, sausage, and puffs disappeared with alarming rapidity. Nubbin’s jaws stopped working only after Luther had tied tight the basket cover cloth.
The boys’ prolonged calls and shrill whistles brought no Spot. Though thoroughly anxious, they could wait no longer. As it was, the sun would be low before they reached Deep Run Camp.
Both were silent as the wagon rolled down the long hill behind the trotting mules. Time must be made up on every down grade now.
At the foot of the hill, a small blackand-white animal slipped out of the woods ahead of the team and, giving one self-assuring glance toward the wagon, trotted unconcernedly down the middle of the road toward Richmond.
‘Look!’ exclaimed Luther.
Nubbin chuckled. ‘Dat ol’ dog!’ he said admiringly. ‘Ain’t he de beatin’es’ ? ’
The other boy chuckled, too: ‘Ain’t he some kind o’ smart ol’ dog, though!’
The wagon lurched on, and finally turned into the Big Road. Surely there should be other wagons now! But none were in sight. Perhaps they’d come up with one at the Forks. Gazing down the long, deserted road, Luther’s thoughts insistently turned to depressing possibilities. Suppose there were no wagons at the camp? His back crept. Deep Run was so ha’nty in late evening — with its black creek, winding like a monstrous snake into the blacker depths of the slash. And Nubbin was n’t much comfort — he was too scary. They must hurry on.
Evening approached, and still no wagons. Of all the tobacco that must be going down, why could n’t they pick up one single wagon? Both boys tried valiantly to keep the talk going, but after each fresh effort the periods of silence grew longer.
The sun was down before they became aware of it. The world went suddenly all dusky and fearsome. Luther was glad to feel Nubbin snuggling close to him again. He thought they should be close to Deep Run, but was n’t sure. He whipped up the jaded mules.
The way grew unfamiliar as dark settled over the road. The wagon seemed only to creep.
Nubbin shuddered: ‘’T is gittin’ so dark! Le’s stop heah ’fo’ we git in any mo’ ol’ black woods.’
‘Oh, we pretty near there now!’ encouraged Luther. ‘T won’ be no time ’fore we see a fire,’ but his voice trembled slightly.
He was tired — so tired with responsibility — and the mules were tired. Was it maybe three, or four miles yet to Deep Run Hill? Persistently he beat away the thought that the camp ground might be vacant. The thing was to reach it!
Then, pulling up a grade that seemed interminable, the off mule fell to his knees.
‘Oh, Jesus!’ whimpered Nubbin. ‘Ol’ Rock down! We can’ go no fudder.’ He began to sob. But Rock regained his feet and the wagon strained on again.
‘You shut up, you ol’ cry-baby!’ admonished Luther scathingly. ‘I bet I won’t bring any more ol’ cry-babies with me!’
‘Oh, I’s so sheered! Hit all . . . so dark . . . an’ skeery. . . . Oh, please! Le’s stop . . . an’ buil’ a fiah . . . Luther . . . please. . .’ The little black head went suddenly under the quilts and down on Luther’s lap, the little arms grasping Luther’s leg.
Suddenly the team quickened its pace, the wagon rolled more easily. The seat slanted forward and the mules broke into a tired jog-trot.
‘Man, we’re here! We’re on the big hill!’ Luther shouted.
They tossed down the slope, Nubbin holding fast to Luther. Then Rock nickered, and a flickering light showed ahead.
Big Buck Smith, the boys’ idea of a veritable paragon of a tobacco man, welcomed Luther, and the roaring fire welcomed Nubbin. Buck’s frank, bluff praise embarrassed Luther almost to speechlessness: —
‘So you an’ the little nigger jus’ set out to carry the Ol’ Man’s ’bacca down, did you ? Well, now, ain’t that the beatin’es’!’ and he slapped Luther so bearishly on the back that the boy swallowed his breath. ‘Well, you jus’ foller ol’ Buck; he’ll p’int you down — a-rollin’,’ and he bellowed such a loud, assured guffaw that Luther felt the Devil himself could n’t scare him now. Nubbin’s white teeth glistened bravely across the fire.
Luther was treated almost as a man; and he swaggered a little as he spoke knowingly of the roads, the weather, and the color of this year’s crop ‘up our way.’ Nubbin swaggered too — silently, in reflected glory, as he struttingly ordered Spot hither and yon, to the little hound’s great discomfort.
Buck even passed his plug of tobacco over to Luther.
‘Don’t believe I’ll chew right now,’ he declined casually. ‘Maybe I’ll take a bite later on.’
Nubbin looked at him so searehingly that his eyes fell.
After the cheering supper about the big fire, his last bone sucked, Nubbin rubbed his face well over with the pork grease on his hands and, rinsing them thoroughly in the residue, cocked his old hat more assuredly and drew forth a small battered harmonica. Softly, tentatively, he sounded a chord or two. Buck looked up. Could the nigger play anything?
‘Play anything!’ bristled Luther. ‘Why, he can make a ol’ harp fairly talk, man. Play ’im “Nelly Gray,” Nub.’
Lovingly the little darky’s hands wrapped themselves about the harmonica; slowly his eyes closed; gently his big shoes began patting a subdued accompaniment, as the strains of the old ballad rose softly, then swelled into the double-tonguing roll of the born master. Through ‘Minstick Town,’ ‘The Bob-tailed Nag,’ through ballad and reel, breakdown and jig, moaned and laughed the battered harmonica.
Without pause it swept into the finale, the time-honored air of the tobacco trains, the men humming the chorus: —
Car’ my ’bacca down,
Car’y it down Richmon’ town,
Car’ my ’bacca down.’
‘Nigger, you sho’ can play!’ exclaimed Buck, as they rose to go to their wagons. ‘But a player like you oughter have a good harp — a big one. Maybe,’ and his eyes twinkled, ‘Santa Claus will bring you a new one.’ Then, turning to Luther, he laughingly added, ‘I’ll bet that nigger is no ’count for nothin’ else.’
Luther seemed puzzled for a moment, then burst forth proudly: ‘He can butt.'
The men roared with laughter. Buck gave him another of his bear slaps.
‘That’s all right,’ bridled the embarrassed boy, climbing into his wagon. ‘You jus’ wait’ll you see him butt sometime! He’s full o’ buttin’ blood.’
Cuddled together, wrapped and rewrapped in quilts, the boys nested upon the soft tobacco in the shallow space under the canvas top, and soon droned themselves to sleep.
Luther’s wagon was second in the little train that crawled slowly into the Big Road next morning as the sun began lightening the shadows of Deep Run Hollow.
First was Buck Smith’s big fourmule team: rugged, powerful animals that could, hour by hour, eat up the miles with four thousand pounds of sun-cured behind them in the scowshaped, handmade wagon of hickory and white oak. The oval canvas top, in natural accord with the rising bow and stern of the body, was more sway-backed, more rakish than the others. Big bundles of fodder bulged under the rope on the rumble behind; buckets swung underneath; a smutty fry-pan and coffeepot and a bright axe and lantern rested in their slots and hooks. Red, brass-mounted cow-tail tassels swayed and sparkled from the headstalls of the big mules, who, even under heavy strain, tossed their heads proudly. A small bronze bell tinkled comfortingly from the hames of each leader — leaders who by mere word of command, even mere inflection of tone, would steer the ponderous wagon as easily and surely as a fur-gloved horseman could guide his pair of trotters.
‘Some kind er ol’ team!’ murmured Nubbin, overpowered by admiration.
Awaking sharp echoes from the woods and hollows, the little train filed rumblingly down the Big Road. Gradually other wagons joined the column, one dawdling at a country store; another waiting at a crossroad; another, warned by the tinkling bells, hurrying in a trot down a deep-cut side road. Wagons of all shapes and sizes, carrying the tobacco down! Wagons thoroughly red from tire to top, as if painted, from the limit of the sun-cured belt; others yellow with the mud from Green Spring country; one blackened with the loam of Locust Creek; another from the sandy river flats of the South Anna — even a pariah of a produce wagon, with its butter and eggs. A giant serpent of wagons slowly winding its way down the road to Richmond.
And men! Black, and yellow, and white men! Old and young men, who yelled one to another above the rumble of the wagons. And a sprinkling of boys, a favored few, bound on a glorious sight-seeing orgy. Many would be the Munchausen tales carried back to their less fortunate brothers. Log schools, churchyards, and tobacco barns would be stirred to their amazed depths ere spring ploughing began.
Luther’s team held its place by dint of both boys walking. Sometimes, on the long steep hills, they became fearful as the gap widened between them and the big team; but Buck would wait at the top to blow his heavy mules.
Hours of plodding; then dinner by Great Stony Creek! Coffeepots clattered and axes rung. A line of little fires soon puffed their smoke aloft, like signals. Luther and Nubbin toasted biscuits and sausage; absorbed tobacco talk; made friends with new boys who came up in diffident admiration to see these young paladins who could take the ’bacca down. The boys were sorry when Buck called, ‘Hook up, men, I’m a-goin’!’
By mid-afternoon the men were jaded from miles of walking to ease their fagging teams. Luther would long ago have ridden but for his pride; Nubbin would have brazenly mounted, pride or no pride, but for Luther.
At one of his halts on a hilltop Buck called and beckoned Luther; Nubbin followed closely as his partner joined the big man in front of the team. Pointing to a smoky haze in the east, Buck grinned delightedly: ‘Thar she is, boys! Richmond! We’ll be in ’fore sundown.’
The road grew smoother — Nubbin marveled at its smoothness. He marveled, too, at the sudden change in the men. Their plodding steps had become youthful; their seats in the saddle or on the wagon more jaunty; their voices brighter. Even the teams were infected with the change. Their step grew more lively; they even broke into occasional trots.
Soon all the men mounted. Nubbin was relieved beyond words, as he limped to the wagon. Luther resented his not entering into the spirit of their approach to Richmond, but perhaps he was just tired out.
Presently Nubbin asked, ‘Ain’t hit tur’ble skeery, wid all dat ol’ smoke an’ all dem ol’ big houses, an’ folks, an’ things? What do hit look like — ’zactly?’
Luther could n’t explain exactly what it was like; but it was powerful big, and everybody was hustling, and big policemen in funny hats watched you. Nubbin shuddered and, inching nearer the white boy, relapsed into silence.
At last the city! The first outlying saloon! — planted there to catch the wagon trade. Most of the train pulled to the side and stopped — a dram at Reiley’s was almost a ritual. The wagons strung out like a fleet of rusty ships at anchor. The few people on the cinder sidewalks stared with interest. Tobacco was sure coming down!
‘Is dis de great Richmon’?’ inquired Nubbin, with a vague mixture of relief and disappointment.
Luther sniffed. Pshaw! The unpaved streets and sparse buildings of this outlying section were nothing! Just let Nubbin wait! The sights downtown would pop his eyes out. Why, they scared even Luther — at first.
Nubbin wished they were safely in Captain John’s high-walled yard, which he had heard so much about — a yard where there would be lots of wagons and lots of men, but country wagons and country men.
The laughing drivers yelled or slapped one another good-bye, for here the train split up into sections — some for Captain John Hundson’s, some for Shockoe, some for Shelburn’s — for any one of a half-dozen sales warehouses.
Going downtown, Nubbin made not a single comment on the sights which Luther pointed out, nor a single reply to his banter. He kept his head over the side of the wagon, occasionally catching his breath audibly. As they turned into Governor Street the electric lights went on. Nubbin flinched and looked at Luther questioningly. Why, the light was almost as bright as the sun — you could n’t look straight at it!
The wagons rolled in a clatter down the ancient cobbled hill of Governor Street, back of the Governor’s Mansion, the men lolling jauntily in their saddles or sitting in the wagons with knees acock, hats turned back. The mules were almost galloping.
Buck Smith gave a loud whoop, and in his deep voice imitated a fox horn’s Toot-te-tool-to-to-o-ot! A door slammed in a house on the corner, a window went up; women were on the porch, at the windows, waving. Luther thought he heard a shrill voice cry, ‘O you ’bacca boys! T’night!’ He wondered why Buck acted so foolishly, made so much noise; why the women came out in the cold, half dressed.
With utter nonchalance, Buck swung the four big mules and the heavy wagon downhill, around corners, through narrow streets, as calmly and with as little effort as a woman takes a stitch. Lounging in the saddle, he ordered his chariot by easy word or slight check of the leader line.
Luther was frightened. His arms were cramped, his teeth set. Nubbin huddled in the foot of the wagon, openly sobbing and praying. Spot, jolted off the seat, yelped in abject terror.
At last, with a swoop and a swing, Buck’s long wagon rolled accurately through the centre of the big gate into the wagon yard of Captain John Hundson’s warehouse. Luther, breathing relief, guided his team through after Buck.
Darkness came quickly down upon the night camp in the wagon yard. Red fires grew, vague forms, like misty giants, loomed and vanished again. Nubbin felt an eerie strangeness in it all. Even Luther was glad to join Buck Smith by his fire. But the cheerful champ of teams and laughter of men, the flash of bright tin cups and the clink of pots and pans, the aroma of boiling coffee and sizzling spareribs, soon lifted them and thrilled them with the all-pervasive, buoyant spirit of the occasion. Was n’t to-morrow the long-thought-of day of sight-seeing, of swaggering about the lower town with a pocketful of money, and of reunion, with toddies and gossip? Was n’t the ’bacca down?
After supper, with the pipe smoke rising in the frosty night air, the plunk-plunk of a banjo came from the far side of the yard, where the negro drivers had instinctively herded together. Buck Smith yelled over that there were three fingers of rye to swap for a song.
The banjo awoke, and quickened to a run of chords. Then a black smooth baritone began singing: —
Way it mighty long,
But a-soon I’ll git my toddy,
Fo’ de mule he mighty strong.
Like niggah in de fiel’,
Jes’ to git some money
Fo’ city folks to steal.
Car’ my ’ba-ac-ca down,
Car’y it down Richmon’ town,
Car’ my ’bacca down.’
After their tobacco had been unloaded next morning, the boys strolled through the warehouse. With shoulders bent and hands clasped behind them, with jaws working, they passed up and down the long aisles between the piled flat baskets; two of a long line of men, walking and acting one like another; pulling out bundles to bury their noses deep in the peachy smell; spreading open the mahogany and chocolate leaves to note their color and feel; pinching off a piece here and there to roll it on their tongues.
The negro boy aped Luther’s every action — even to pretending to taste samples. Both frequently spat brown licorice juice, like ambeer. Spot walked bow-leggedly behind, sniffing at the baskets and sneezing often.
Wandering into a storage wing, they were accosted by a thick-chested black hogshead-roller, his pig eyes taking in the small hound. ‘White boy,’ he said threateningly, ‘ef you wants dat pocket-size dog evah see home ag’in, you bettah lock him in de Cap’n’s safe.’
‘Oh, you’s a fighter, is you? You wait. I gi’e you somep’n t’ fight.’
Laughing nastily, the big negro slouched away.
‘What de mattah wid him?’ questioned Nubbin apprehensively.
‘I don’ know,’ replied Luther, his face flushed, ‘but he better not be tryin’ to bully men around here. I ’ll — I ’ll — I bet he’d be sorry if Cap’n John heard ’bout it.’
Just then there was a flurry at the end of the warehouse — Captain John had come!
Captain John, red of face, debonair, military, the idol of his customers, and their best friend!
His arm about Luther’s proud shoulder, one of his new dimes in Nubbin’s pocket, he ambled beamingly down the aisles, shaking friendly hands, slapping friendly backs.
Luther’s tobacco would be sold first! Yes, sir! The son of the Captain’s old friend should get his check first and be free to enjoy the day. And the Captain wanted the buyers to bid the limit on this boy’s tobacco; he’d brought it down alone, with only a little nigger — and there was no better tobacco grown in Virginia.
Captain John had a way with him, and when Luther’s tobacco had been sold the boys were jubilant. The top price for sun-cured, the auctioneer had said! Would n’t the home folks be tickled!
Did any fellers ever have such a trip — such a time! Chattering, whistling, they skipped arm in arm across the cobbled yard to feed the mules.
Luther must go over his mother’s list before the exploration of Main Street began. They perched themselves in the warming sun on the edge of a platform projecting from the far door in the unused wing of the warehouse, while Luther sedulously checked the items with a smudgy pencil stub. Nubbin was swinging his heels impatiently against the timbers. Spot was sniffing about in front, looking for stray bones.
Softly, very softly, unheard by the boys, the door behind them slid back. The small-eyed, ugly black face of the hogshead-roller leered out for a moment, then furtively drew back. A peculiar scratching sound, like animal claws on a wood floor, came from within. Spot suddenly froze, head cocked aside, one forefoot raised. Nubbin half whirled about and looked over his shoulder.
A huge brindle dog filled the open doorway. Slowly his powerful head swung, slowly his vicious red eyes shifted from the boys to the poised figure of the little hound just beyond. A bullying growl issued from his throat.
With a terrified yell, Nubbin rolled desperately over backward to the far corner of the platform; squealing, Spot darted for Luther’s feet. The brindle dog snarled and charged.
Luther felt the blunt, heavy weight of the grotesque body as it struck him a slanting blow. Bowled over, he lay a moment confused and terrified. But the distressed muffled yelps of the little hound electrified him.
‘Get a stick! Hit ’im, Nub—kill ’im!’ he screamed. Running and dodging fruitlessly about the entangled dogs, he looked for a board, a stone, any weapon with which to drive off the bully, while he yelled boyish oaths and sobbed with fear and rage. He pawed at a protruding cobblestone which would not come free. Then a choking gurgle from Spot sent a shiver of fury through him.
Desperately he jumped at the brindle and swung his heavy-soled brogan into the dog’s ribs. Once, twice, he kicked with all the power of his reckless fury, sobbing, mouthing: ’Le’ ’im go! Le’ ’im go! You ol’ heller! I’ll kill you! I’ll . . . kick . . . yo’ ol’ . . . heart ...'
With a snarl the mongrel whirled from the little dog and struck at Luther’s leg. Before the boy could move, quick as a snake, the brute recovered and sprang for his throat.
Instinctively Luther stiffened and threw up a guarding arm, but he was staggered by the heavy dog’s impact. Stumbling, borne backward, trying in vain to keep his feet, he screamed in terror, as the beast’s hot breath came in his face and he felt himself tottering, going down, under those terrible teeth.
The little darky had been dancing up and down as if stung with hornets, his clenched fists beating the air, his lips stretched from his teeth in a tearstreaked grimace of horror, his shrill voice screaming: —
‘He’p! He’p! Run heah, somebody! Run heah! ...
When he saw the brindle bring down his partner against the brick wall, he made a spring as if starting to his assistance. But the prospect of facing those savage fangs was too much for him. Holding up his ragged arms in supplication, he shrieked: ‘O Gawd! O Jesus! Have mercy! He killin’ ’im. ...'
A cry from Luther of ‘Help, Nub, hel-l-p!’ reached a new spring in his consciousness. Fear, dreadful fear, had held him; but the appeal in extremity from his friend, his own Luther, snapped the leash. The blood of the Congo, the spirit of lion-hunting forbears, — and a butting grandsire, — quickened like magic within his little body, within his soul. He went berserk.
With a sobbing snarl he threw his hat viciously to the floor, and sprang jumping, bouncing down the platform. Bleating an instinctive sharp ‘Baa!’ his slim body left the edge of the platform, and, like a tattered arrow, shot through the ten feet of space — straight for the brindle’s head. Against that head struck the crown of a negro of buttin’ blood — small, but of famous lineage; the grandson, indeed, of the buttin’es’ niggah in de county.
When Nubbin came up out of the blackness of long oblivion, he thought he must be in Heaven. Before his tired eyelids could lift, he seemed to hear a voice in the far distance say: ‘He’s th’ — buttin’es ' — nigger — in — th’ — world.’
It must be Heaven! On opening his eyes he was sure of it: a longwhite-whiskered, white-haired old gentleman was pressing his head.
‘Gabr’el!’ he thought. ‘Rammin’ home de golden crown! ’ But the crowning hurt terribly.
‘Hit’s too tight! Too tight!’ he moaned, closing his eyes.
‘Lie still, son! I’ll soon be through.’
He felt a sharp prick in his arm. Gabriel was trying to hurt him.
Dimly, amid much talk, he heard a tearful young voice, a voice that sounded like that of his beloved earthly partner. Luther was in Heaven with him! That was good!
‘Doctor, is he dyin’?’
‘Dying nothing! When the hypodermic takes effect I’ll finish stitching his head and strap up that shoulder. . . .’
What funny talk for angels! But of course Heaven was a funny place. Anyway, he could take a nap — Luther was there.
When his eyes opened to full consciousness, they glanced about the walls. Big railroad calendars, a long black stovepipe, and an old buggy harness did not seem appropriate decorations for the walls of Heaven. Trying to turn over, he cried out.
‘Does it hurt so bad, Nub?’ asked an entirely earthly voice.
‘Who dat?’ he questioned feebly.
Rising, the white boy leaned over the figure mummied in shoulder and head bandages. ‘You feelin’ better?’ he asked, stroking the black paw.
‘You talks natchul,’ Nubbin remarked doubtingly.
‘Why should n’t I? That ol’ dog jus’ chewed my overcoat collar. He hardly scratched my throat. But if it had n’t been for you,’ his voice broke, ‘I reckon—I’d been — mos’ killed.’
Nubbin’s eyes were drawn back to the old harness.
‘Den dis heah ain’ . . .’he began, but his question was interrupted by a hot, black nose against his cheek. With an effort, he looked into the face of what resembled a blear-eyed, disreputable old man with a soiled stock about his neck.
Smiling faintly, he asked, ‘He hu’t much?’
No, Spot was n’t dangerously hurt, but there was a bad gash in his neck, which Luther had bandaged.
Captain John, Buck Smith, and a dozen others came admiringly into the room.
Buck Smith stood beside the boy’s cot and, leaning over, closed the slender black fingers about a narrow red-and-gold box from whose elaborate decorations stood out the words: ‘FullConcert Harmonica.’
Turning from the pinched face to the crowd, he said: —
‘Men, thar lays the buttin’es’ little nigger in the world.’
Slowly Nubbin seemed to awaken to the reality of his own familiar world, to the actual meaning and significance of those precious words. His eyes opened wide; they rolled from Buck Smith to the nodding men, then back to Buck.
He moistened his lips; his little hand squeezed tight on the new harp. Then, slowly, like sunrise, a beatific smile lighted his ashy face. He sighed, as if unloading a great burden, and, closing his eyes, murmured: —
‘Yas, suh, I got buttin’ blood.’