IT’S a wonderful thing to be the handy man of the community.
Lenix Ballister, the colored diplomat of Chatville East, while not exactly such, was in many regards what might be justly termed “A friend in need” to many of his neighbors. A funeral would have been an inauspicious occasion, indeed, without Lenix riding in the pallbearers' democrat, ahead of the procession, and he had been known to conduct the entire funeral from digging the grave to preaching the funeral sermon. On one occasion he had acted as change-taker at a garden-party, but only once. Just why his services, in this connection, were never again desired is not definitely known. Certain jealous, narrow-minded people, it is true, had hinted that it was because he had split the proceeds with the church, fifty-fifty; but such nasty insinuations are scarcely things to be considered. From time immemorial martyrs have been slandered, stoned, abused and burned at the stake, and they have never denied nor retaliated. Why should he?
Lenix’s good-Samaritan specialty lay, it might be said, in helping the under-dog. Under-dog is a term applied to a man who has been cornered by bigger and stronger men and thrown down. Lenix helped such a one whenever possible. This he did for two reasons, sympathy for the down-and-outer, and contempt for law which had made him such.
True he scorned the under-dog for allowing himself to be caught, but that did not prevent him reaching out a helping hand to the down one whenever possible.
Scarcely a week passed in which the busy Chatville police-court did not find Lenix giving testimony in behalf of some luckless wayfarer. Judge McDool had become so accustomed to having him at all his sessions that he hated to start the mills of Justice without him. “Are we to open court without Lenix, to-day?” he would say; and the lawyers would chuckle and the policeman grin from ear to ear. It was a standing joke of Judge McDool’s.
The old Judge used to say of Len’s testimony, that it was the most powerful dissertation of fiction, compiled to fit the occasion, combined with flowery and unmeaning language, that any court had ever had the privilege of listening to.
Undoubtedly, the judge was right. But Len’s testimony was usually a little more than this, because it invariably carried with it—conviction.
Lenix had kissed that old Bible, lying on the witnessstand, so many times that he knew the number of pebbles in its leather cover. Always, his deportment in court left nothing to be desired. At times, it is true, he was not sufficiently prepared to give just the variety of testimony he desired to give, but he was always willing to swear to something and stick to it. The lawyer had, long since, given up trying to rattle him, or attempting to make him deny sortie previous assertion. In a way, they respected Len, knowing, as they did, that no matter how clear a case they had, there was no way of telling just how it would go until he had given his testimony.
ON this particular morning Lenix was at the police-court early. A subpoena had been quietly handed him the night before. True, the usual dollar for expenses, and time, had not accompanied it, nevertheless in the quiet of the barn, in the sputtering light of a lantern, Lenix had read the subpoena and had failed utterly to decipher it.
All he could learn was that he was being summoned to give testimony in the case of one Lem Smith, charged with stealing a brick-and-mortar hod from one James Jinkins.
Len was in a quandary. He did not think he knew James Jinkins. He was sure he didn’t know Lem Smith. What a brick-and-mortar hod was, he had not the slightest idea. Of course, what he would say, on oath, would be in favor of the prisoner; that was why he was being subpoenaed. But who was the prisoner? How did he come to get caught? What did Smith want with it, anyhow?
So, he had come down a little earlier than usual, this morning, in hopes of securing some information concerning the stolen article, and of getting a chance to have a word or two in private with the prisoner. He wished to know many things—particularly why one dollar cash had not accompanied the subpoena.
He had, accordingly, walked around the lock-up twice, stretching his long neck in vainly striving to probe the darkness of its outer cells. But Luck was against him, in spite of the fact that he wore his horseshoe attached to the trouser-band beneath his vest. He failed to locate Smith, who was likely locked securely in one of the inner cells.
A trifle worried, Lenix at length slowly climbed the steps of the lock-up, and entered the silent, musty courtroom. Never in all his police-court experience had Lenix felt so helpless to give needed succor to an under-dog.
The big, bare room in which Judge McDool had dispensed justice and pronounced, for twenty years, or more, the words which made many a poor prisoner glad or sorrowful, was entirely empty. Not even the burly officer, Stanton, was there to ask Len if he had wiped his feet before entering. But the officer’s coat was there, hanging on a peg, and Stanton would not be far away from his coat. Lenix glanced at the clock above the judge’s desk. Court wouldn’t open for fifteen minutes yet. He shuffled his feet restlessly and glanced about him. Then he put on his hat. He had never been allowed to wear his hat in court before. If Luck had only led him in there a little sooner, he thought, there was no telling just what liberties he might have taken with the sanctity of that hated spot. However, there were a few more little things he might do during the brief time at his disposal, such as spit on the floor and scratch some varnish off the railing; and these things he proceeded to do without loss of time.
Suddenly, his eyes fastened on the officer's braided and brass-buttoned coat. A folded paper protruded from its pocket, and on the top of the paper was printed WARRANT. Len’s knowledge of warrants, summonses, and so forth, was by no means small. He slid a little further down the bench until the coat brushed his face; then he stood up and deftly extracted the warrant from the pocket. Quickly he examined it, then with a low whistle he slipped it back in the pocket again.
“Lor amighty!” he murmured. “Dat warrant am fer Homer Hudson, an’ it’s swared out by ole man Stacey, de chickun farmer. Homer’s done bein’ ’rested fer stealin’ chickuns.”
A HEAVY step was heard ascending the stair, accompanied by a slower, lighter one. Len slid back along the bench and whipped off his hat, just as Judge McDool and Officer Stanton entered.
Judge and officer glanced at Len and exchanged a knowing smile. Stanton reached for his coat, then cast a suspicious eye on Lenix.
“How long yer been here, Len?” he asked, casually enough.
“Jes dis minute come in, officer.”
Len was edging gently and nonchalantly towards the stairway. “Jes drapped in t’inkin’ cou’t would be open; but my watch, I fin’, am twenty minutes fas’.”
“So you’ve had the whole court house to yourself, eh?”
“Yes, sah. I fin’ dough dat my watch am twenty minutes fas’.”
Len smiled and turned towards the stairs. The officer barred his way.
“No, you don’t,” he growled.
Judge McDool looked up with a twinkle in his eye.
“What is it, officer?” he enquired.
“Your Worship,” Stanton replied, “t have every reason believe that this coon, here, knows that there is a warrant out for Homer Hudson, and that it is his purpose to warn him of the fact.”
“Deed, yore honor—” Lenix started to deny, but the Judge held up his hand for silence.
“In that case he would be deliberately interfering with an officer in the execution of his duty,” spoke the judge sternly. “Place him under arrest.”
Stanton touched Len’s shoulder and he sat down dejectedly on the bench. The officer, wearing a broad smile, went out and down the stairs. Len sat with eyes glued the window. Finally he saw Stanton’s figure moving along the street.
“Dat bull’s goin’ down ter Chatville East ter ’res’ Homer,” he soliloquized. “Homer 'lI be dreamin’ ob de angels. He’ll be took asleep in bed.”
Len was suffering all the tortures of one whom Luck has sneered at. Not only had he been frustrated in his attempt to warn Homer, but he had been arrested himself. This was due to Stanton’s jealousy, he reasoned. Stanton had hated him ever since the night he had assisted the big detective in rounding up the bank-robbers. There was no telling what might be done to him now. He knew of eases where innocent people had been railroaded into jail on very trivial, trumped-up charges.
Five long, dragging minutes passed; then Judge McDool glanced up again. Len looked at him, dumb appeal in his eyesl
“Ballister,” said the judge. “I am of the opinion that Officer Stanton was a little hasty in arresting you. Also, that I exceeded my authority somewhat in ordering your arrest. You are at liberty.”
Joy leaped into Len’s soul and threw handsprings all across it. Joy shone in his eyes as he got hastily off the bench and made for the door.
“Tanks, yore honor.”
He was going to warn Homer. At the top of the stairs, the judge’s voice stopped him.
“Just a minute, Ballister. If, by any possible chance, it is your intention to warn Hudson, you might as well give it up. Constable Stanton has several minutes the start of you.”
Len saw it all now. It had been a plant, a deliberate, low-down plant to hold him back while Stanton got a good lead. He fumed in his heart, but the face he turned towards the judge was tranquil and innocent.
“Yo’ worship, I wasn’t aimin’ ter warn nobody.”
As he went down the stairs he met numbers coming up, the usual crowd of sordid-minded people which a police-court always attracts, reluctant witnesses, lawyers, all on their way to the mills of Justice. That mill would start grinding in exactly four minutes. Len quickened his steps.
Once outside, he ducked behind the building, crossed a vacant lot and slipped into a feed-stable on a narrow street. A bald-headed negro was seated on a stool, greasing a rusty-looking harness.
“Jim, le’ me use yer phone a minute?”
“Sure, Len, go right inter office.”
Len entered the office and called up a number.
“Dat yo’ Abe? Well, it’s Len talkin’. ’Abe, lis’en, an’ lis’en wif ebery t’ing yer got! Homer is slated fer chickun-takin’. Stanton’s on his way ober dar to ’res’ him, now! Abe, yo’ all get a hustle on, an’ cross fields right quick. Yo’ warn Homer. Tell him I say he’s ter go up in hayloft an’ burrow deep. Tell him ter stay dere till I come—What’s dat? Lor’ amighty! yo’ all say he’s on his way up town, now? Well, dat settles it den. He’ll jes’ natually fly inter Stanton’s arms.”
With a sigh, Len hung up the receiver and trailed along outside, forgetting to thank the stable-keeper. Slowly, with dragging feet, he sought the police-court again. As he turned towards the stairs he saw Stanton and Homer approaching the building, side by side. “Dey’s got him,” groaned Len. “Dey’s sure got pore, careless Homer. Dere am some people dat shouldn’ be born niggers, nohow, an’ Homer’s one ob ’em. Kaynt eben steal a triflin’ chickun er two wifout bein’ caught!”
Shaking his head sadly, Len ascended the stairs and entered the court house, to offer whatever testimony he best could, in favor of an unknown nigger named Lem Smith, who had stolen something known as a brick-and-mortar hod, also to collect, if possible, one dollar witness-fees, from said Smith.
BOSS HOLDAWAY of the Brady mill was mad clean through. He bustled about through the building with that bobbing, uncertain step which characterizes all mill-bosses when things are not just going right. With hard hat crushed low on his shaven head, Holdaway was making a systematic canvass of the workers under his supervision, giving each in a few, well-chosen, caustic words, what is known in stave-mill parlance as a calling-down. With a final glare about him, he passed on into the office and motioned the cashier over to the wicket.
“Tom, Len Ballister done fall down on me again ter day. I’se goin’ ter hoi’ out his week’s wages,” he said.
"All right, Boss.” The cashier grinned and lifted one of the little envelopes out from among its fellows. “Will you sign for it?”
With a grunt, Holdaway signed the pay sheet and crammed the envelope into his vest pocket. "I sure wish I was able ter fire dat Len,” he growled, “but I kaynt fin’ anudder cutter like him.”
"What’s he been up to now?” the cashier enquired.
“Nuthin’ unusual, fer him. He done ask fer an hour off, dis mornin’, ter act as witness in police-cou’t case. Now it’s five o’clock, jes’ an hour afore quittin’ time, an’ he aint back yit. The cutter in his place is slow. Us am exactly one t’ousand staves short ob our daily output, an’ dat all means us’ll lose dat Nestleton order.”
He turned towards the door, but the cashier called to him.
“Are you going to allow Len pay for to-day, Boss? I didn’t know he was away, and I made up his regular salary.”
Holdaway paused. “Well, yo’ kin jes’ bet I’se not goin’ ter allow him pay fer ter day. I’se in a hurry dough, Tom; so I’ll jes' fish out $3.00 from his envelope an’ yo’ all kin take it outer mine. Is dat satisfactory?”
“Perfectly O.K.” The cashier turned back to his books, “Isn’t that Len the limit?” he chuckled. “He’ll worry poor Boss Holdaway to death yet. Likely Len has got wind of the Slabville Old Boys’ Reunion, and has gone over there.”
BUT Len had heard of no Reunion. More serious matters were claiming his attention. An under-dog without a friend in the world had been trussed, hog-tied, muzzled and securely crated, preparatory to a little trip to that sordid dog-pound known to the world generally as the penitentiary. That under-dog was Homer.
Homer had been arrested on a chicken-stealing charge and cast into jail. The judge had refused bail offered by the prisoner himself, who had even suggested his willingness to raise it from $500 to $1,000. But the judge had said “No.” Consequently Homer must languish in a rat-infested cell until Monday morning, when his trial would take place before Judge McDool. And this was only Saturday.
Of course, Len did not go back to his work at the mill! He never even thought of his work at the mill. Homer was a poor down-and-out nigger who needed a friend. Had Len been in Homer’s place, he knew what Homer would do. Consequently, having through his testimony freed prisoner, Lem Smith, Len’s first act was to visit Homer.
Homer’s first words to him were. “Len, I’se completely did fer. I want yo’ ter hab my house an’ back-yard fer yo’self. I’ll nebber lib’ ter get back from the penetentiary.”
Len’s eye worked and his mouth fluttered, as he answered: “Shoo, Homer, yo’ all won’t get no chance ter eben glimpse dat penetentiary. I’se goin’ ter get yo’ clear off, I is.”
“Dat kaynt jes’ be, Len. It kaynt jes’ be. I knowed right well when dat black cat cross my paff las’ night, sumfin doleful ’ud happen, an’ it sure has.”
“Why fo’ yo’ let ’em catch yer, Homer?”
“Fer why? Cause I wasn’t knowin’ no bulls was af’er me. I didn’t steal no chickuns from ole man Stacey, nohow.”
Len nodded. Evidently Homer’s mind was a little unbalanced, otherwise he would surely know that he could confess fully and freely to him. “Be dat as it maybe, Homer. It stan’s dat dey’s gaddered yo' inter de fold. How bes' yer goin’ ter bus’ out. remains to be seen.”
"Len, I’se gotter stay in dis place all two nights. De jedge he won’t ’cept my bail.”
“I know. It’s mighty tough, Homer. 'Tis so.”
Homer shuddered. “Dere’s rats in dis place, Len. Big, hungry-lookin’ rats dat’ll bite scallops down my jawbones. God-amitty, I isn’t eben goin' ter las’ long enuf ter get ter dat penetentiary, I isn’t!”
HE shivered so that the bars, grasped in his huge hands, A shook. The guard came sauntering over, to stand before him. “No use trying to shake them rods loose,” he growled. “They’re cemented in. Now you be good, or I’ll put you in the dungeon.” He gave Homer a fierce look and strode back to his old position.
“Homer, who all yo’ want ter defend yo’?” Len whispered the question.
Homer’s close-cropped head shot out antagonistically, “I reckon I aint wantin’ nobody ter defen’ me. I kin defen’ myse’f, if so dey gib me a chance. I kin lick all dese policeman stacked togedder, an’ dey all knows it. If dey start any rough-house stuff, Len, I’ll spread em about in small particles; yo’ watch me!”
“No, Homer, yo’ don’ understan’. I mean, what lawyer y o’ want me ter get to plead yore cause in cou’t, Monday mornin’?”
Homer was silent. At last he spoke hopelessly. “Oh what’s de use. Dis here t’ing is a plant, a pure plant, Len. Dey put up a job on me, dat’s all. If I stole Stacey’s chickuns, I’d sure tell yo’ I did. But Len, I didn’t steal no chickuns from him nohow. Dat’s as true as yore name’s Len.”
“Holy Moses!” Len crammed his hands in his pockets and whistled low and solemnly. “Homer, dat’s all de queeres’ t’ing I ebber heered tell on. Whyfo’ yo’ specs dey did it, den, Homer?”
Homer shrugged. “Oh, de police, dey t’ink it’s all right. Dey got plenty of circumstances evidence ag’in me, I reckon. It aint de police what’s doin’ it, it’s somebody else. Dey fin’ Plymouth-rock fedders in my backyard, an’ dressed chickuns in my pantry. Course de police t’ink I’se guilty, Len.”
“Homer, how come yo’ sent ober two dressed chickuns ter my place las’ night?” Len’s tones were insinuating, if not a little suspicious.
“Dere yo’ go, Len. Straight off, yo’ all jumps at conclusions. But yo’ am wrong, I tole yer. I’m swearin’ I didn’t steal no chickuns from ole man Stacey, yo’ kin believe it.”
Len sighed. “Well, Homer, I’se goin’ out now ter hunt up a good lawyer an’ I’ll fotch him in here. If yo’ care ter tell him all yo’ feel like keepin’ from yore frien', Len, all hunky. I’d say tell him eberyt’ing.” “I’ll tell him de trufe, nuffin
“Trufe’s enough. I’ll come straight back soon, Homer. So long.” Homer did not respond. He had sunk dismally down on his cot, his face in his hands, his lips moving and his eyes rolling.
The guard, watching from a distance, touched Len on the shoulder as he came up. “That nigger’s prayin’,” he scoffed. “He’s so scared he’s near white.”
Len cast an eye back on the drooping Homer. “Dat nigger aint doin’ so much prayin’ as he is thinkin’,” he answered. “It’s not ’tall unlikely dat de feller dat work dis plant on him ’ll lose his teefe an’ eyesight soon’s he am liberated.”
“Oh, it’s no plant,” the guard growled. “That Homer was caught with the goods. He’ll be takin’ a nice little railroad journey about Monday. That is,” he added with a chuckle, “if the rats don’t eat him between now and then.”
Len drew the guard further down the hall. “Look yo'." he whispered. "Dat’s cell number twonty-fo’, dat Ilomer's in, aint it?”
"Well, aint dat de cell what ole man Gilbert done hang himself ter deff in, free months ago?”
"Yep. That’s the cell. The old man choked himself to death with his braces.”
Len glanced pleadingly into the officer’s face. He wanted to beg him not to tell Homer that a man had committed suicide in that cell, lie knew such intelligence would likely throw Homer into a bran new variety of fit. “Dat coon’ll be seein’ ghosts runnin’ chariot-races wif rat teams,” he thought. “I must shet dis policeman’s mouf, er I’ll hab ter be cornin’ down here nights ter keep dat Homer company.”
The guard was watching Len intently. “Is that nigger scared of ghosts, Len?” he asked, with a wicked grin.
Len dolefully shook his head. “Dat’s jes de trubble,” he answered. “He’s de very opposite, he is. Nebber knowed sech a morbid-minded nigger in my life as he is. Why, he’d be so sot-up if he knowed dat a feller killed himself in dar, he’d look on his imprisonment as a privilege. He’s great fer suicides, murders an’ dem sorter fings, Homer is. Guess I’ll go back an’ tell him; it’ll cheer him heaps ter know dat he’s sleepin’ whar a dead man lay, an’ us all don’t min’ passin’ ’long a little cheer, do us, officer?”
Len turned back towards the cell, but the guard’s big hand gripped his shoulder, “No you don’t,” he snarled. “You let him be! We don’t believe in passing along good cheer, as you call it, in this place. That nigger’s not going to know a thing about old man Gilbert strangling himself in there. He don’t deserve to. I had a hunch he was the kind of coon would bite his way through a stone-wall to get away from a ghost, but if he’s as you say, why—But say, he must be a queer nigger, that?”
“Sure am. Ebery Satterday night he takes his blanket an’ goes down to de ole cemetary', in de weepin’ wilier grove, an sleeps dere among de graves. Been doin’ it fer years, he has. If he kin fin’ an open grave, so much de better,. He curl right up in it an’ go ter sleep. He say de ghosts an spirits done tell him wonderful t’ings, down dere, long ’bout midnight. I do suttinly wish yo’d let me hint sumfin’ ’bout dat suicide, or tole him 'bout it yorse’f?”
The guard’s eyes were bulging. “Good Lor’, and I’m on duty here until to-morrow morning,” he shivered.
“Well, yo’ get Homer ter tole yo’ ’bout the spirits, den,” said Len as he made for the iron-bound door.
“Where you goin’ now?” asked the guard.
“I’se goin’ ter get a lawyer for Homer.”
“Well, you might as well save your time. No lawyer, who knows his record, will serve him, and I guess they all know it.”
Len pondered this bit of intelligence for a moment. “Oh, well, all I kin do is try,” be smiled.
The guard unlocked the big door and Len stepped outside. “Dere won’t be no talk ob ghosts in dis here pleasure-resort dis night ob our Lord,” he soliloquized, as he blinked up at the sunlight.
NOON came. Len, hot and perspiring, was still ’boring his way about the city in search of a lawyer to defend Homer at his coming trial. He had, so far, been unsuccessful. But he was not discouraged. Noon passed. The one o’clock whistle of Brady’s stave-mill sounded, but Len did not so much as hear it, let wonder how Boss Holdaway was getting along without his champion stave-cutter. So, until five o’clock he worked and sweated, unmindful that he had had no dinner, doing his best to hire a lawyer for his erring and too-trustful friend in the lock-up.
At five o’clock he dragged his laggard steps towards the prison. His heart was sunk to low zero. He was hot, weary and discouraged. He was hungry enough to eat the big guard who admitted him once again to Homer’s presence.
Homer stood grasping the bars of his cell, like a big gorilla lately pressed into captivity. The sole illuminating ray in the place was Homer’s gold tooth, and it was dim as though tarnished with doubts and fears of its owner. That tooth gleamed for the fraction of a instant in one of the most hopeless, most pitiful smiles Len had ever seen, flashed like a spark of hope through the sombreness of despair, as Len’s steps came jauntily towards him.
“Len, did yo’ all get him? Who am he?” Homer swallowed hard and gazed pleadingly out into the tranquil face of his friend.
“Don’ jes’ know yit, Homer,” lied Len, cheerfully. “Dere’s five of de bes’ lawyers here wants ter take de case, but I havn’t decided which one ’ll get it. Fact is,” he said, frowning, “I don' believe I’ll let any ob dees here Chatville lawyers hab de case. Dey don’t deserve it. It’ll jest about make any of dem a big reputation, an’ us isn’t in the reputation-makin’ business.”
“Dat’s so, Len,” gasped the trembling Homer, who was in a position to agree with anything Len said.
“So, I aim, af’er dark, ter dribe ober ter Bridgetown an’ get counsel dere.”
“Jes’ as yo’ t’ink bes’, Len.”
“Yes, dats what I’ll do, Homer, but fust, dough, I’ll hab ter go down ter mill an’ draw my week’s pay, in case dat lawyer ask fer retainin’ fee—dat is unless yo’ all happen ter hah a ten spot on yo’, Homer'?”
“What dat retainin’ fee, Len?”
“Why, it’s what yo’ hab ter pay one ob dem big criminal-lawyers in advance, supposin’ yo’ want him bad enuff. My week’s wages am cornin’ ter me from mill, an’ I jes’ go get it, dat is unless yo’ happen ter hah a ten spot on y o’ Homer?”
“I’se got it, Len. Here ’t is.”
Homer went down in his pocket and brought out a roll of bills. “Is dat ten spot enuff, Len?”
“Reckon so.” Len transposed the bill to his own pocket, “For de time bein’,” he added by way of afterthought. “Dat lawyer’ll likely tax yo’ ten more, pervidin’ he get yo’, off.”
“Tell him I’ll gib him twenty,” Homer whispered eagerly. Len removed his felt hat and scratched his crinkly head, “I dunno ’bout tellin’ him dat, cornin’ as it does from yo’, direct. Homer,” he said seriously, “it almos’ too much like a bribe. Tole yer what be better, jes yo’ gib me two more ob dem tens, an’ I’ll say ter dat lawyer dat I’se got it, an’ll pay it to him soon’s yo’re free. He’ll likely not trus’ me, an’ll ask me ter put up dat twenty in some third party’s ban’s. I’ll den put up dat twenty yo’se goin’ ter gib me now, see?”
“Jes so.” There was no warmth in Homer’s tones, but promptly he withdrew his roll and peeled off two more ten dollar notes.
“If he kaynt get yo’ off, course he don’t get dis twenty,” Len assured Homer, as he put the money away.
“Den yo’ kin keep it, Len,” groaned Homer. “ ’Twon’t be no good ter me. I’ll be in jail, I will; er dead, maybe.”
“Homer, don’ yo’ worry. Jes’ yo’ all remember ole Len am workin’ fer yo’, toof an’ nail.”
“I’se rememberin’, Len. Yo’ allars stood by me, Len.”
“Allars will.” Len shuffled his feet nervously and put on his hat, wrong-side-to. “Now I mus’ get goin’, Homer. I’ll come ober tomorrie. It’s Sunday, an’ I won’t hab ter work. Keep up yore nerves, Homer, an’ don’ chaw too much tobaccer. Here’s a pictur’-book I done buy yo’ ter pass time away.”
Len drew from his inside pocket a book, which Jane Ann had only that morning intrusted to him to hand back to a neighbor from whom she had borrowed it, and passed it through the bars to the now smiling Homer.
“Golly, I do so like lookin’ at pictures,
“Dat’s good. Well, see yo’ tomorrie, Homer. So long.”
“Good-bye, Len,” said Homer solemnly.
LEN bought some bananas and a sack of doughnuts at a restaurant and ate them on his way down to the mill. He was going down to draw his week’s pay, and in his active mind there was just a tiny little cloud of doubt as to whether he would be successful in getting his pay envelope. Boss Holdaway was a keen-visioned man, and would hold out on him unless he employed strategy. Boss would be carrying his week’s salary in his pocket, he felt pretty sure of that.
The six o’clock whistle had not finished blowing when Len passed into the time-office, and stood expectantly waiting for the cashier to pass out his week’s pay envelope.
The cashier glanced up with a grin. “Boss Holdaway took yours, Len,” he informed him.
“I see,” Len stepped back and flecked the dust from a shoe with his felt hat. “He all signed fer it, I s’pose, Mister Jackson?”
“Yes. There’s a day’s pay to be taken out of it though, Boss said he’d take it out, and I could keep it out of his.”
“Jes so. Much obliged.”
Len back-tracked from the office, and with eyes watchful and long neck craned, went looking for Holdaway.
He found the Boss berating one of the tadders. Len stood respectfully by, until Holdaway turned and saw him. Then he smiled.
“Well,” said Holdaway, “What yo’ want, Len?”
“De cashier done tell me dat yo’ got my pay envelope, Mister Holdaway.”
“Dat’s so. What about it? Yo’ aint goin’ ter get it till nex’ Satterday—”
Len’s eyes opened in feigned surprise. “Why so?” he asked blankly.
“I’ll tell yo’ why so. Yo’ got ter quit layin’ down on me de way yo’ been doin’. We’se short in our orders, an’ yo’ stay ’way all day from yore work. Now, yo’ don’t get no money till nex’ week.”
“But Boss, I done sent li’l' Willy Jones down here ter explain ’bout Jane Ann’s accident. Sholey he come?”
“No, he didn’t. What accident happen ter yo’ wife, Len?”
Holdaway was a family man himself.
“Why, her fell offin a stepladder dis mornin’, jes afore I get back from police-cou’t. She break bofe her legs an’ bofe her arms.”
Holdaway’s mouth fell open. “Good Lor’,” he exploded. “Yo’ don’ say so!”
“Been unconscious all day." Len plucked a sliver from a green stave and chewed it nervously. Holdaway noted, for the first time, his tired eyes, his shaking hands.
“What do doctor say ’bout her, Len?” he asked in a friendly tone.
“One ob dem say she’s in bad way. De udder free claim she’ll get roun’ ag’in.”
Four doctors! Holdaway gasped, and putting his hand in his pocket drew out Len’s envelope. “Here’s yore week’s pay, Len,’’ he said sympathetically.
“T’anks, Boss.” Len took the envelope and moved dejectedly away. He paused at the edge of the yard. “Mister Holdaway, if yo’ an’ Misses Holdaway could drap in an’ see Jane Ann, sometime, af er her’s past danger point, I’d be right grateful.”
“Sure, Len, us’ll be glad ter do dat. When had we bes’ come?”
Len pondered a moment. “I’se hopin’ dat af’er two weeks, say, her’ll be sufficiently recovered ter welcome ole frien’s. S’pose us say two weeks from ter night, Boss?”
“All right, Len. Two weeks from ter night, it is. If yo’se wantin’ anyfing, send ober."
Len nodded and pursued his solitary way out of the mill yard. It was not until he went to the office for his own envelope, and counted the contents that Holdaway remembered, with a start, that he had neglected to deduct the day’s pay from that of his cutter.
“Dat Len,” he scowled, “I not only lose sleep ober him, but I loses money too. No won'er dat nigger hab accidents in his ’ family.”
IT was very late, Saturday night; one of those dark still nights with soft summer rain falling steadily to patter dream-music on the shingles, a night for sleeping if ever there was one. But Lenix, lying between the cool sheets of his bed, beside the snoring Jane Ann, lay wide awake. Not even a conscious-ridden sinner could have been more wide-awake than he. It was not that he had failed in appeasing Jane Ann’s wrath at having stayed away from his meals all day long, and gone sky-larking off at night with her sorrel-driving mare, because a box of candy and a new hair-ornament had turned that trick beautifully. It was not at thought of what Boss Holdaway might pointedly tell him when he discovered that he, Len, had lied shamelessly to him. Neither was it the fact that he could find no lawyer either in Chatville or Bridgetown willing to defend Homer at Monday’s trial. Nothing so trivial as these things was responsible for his wakefulness.
Staring up into the darkness, Len reviewed the evening’s work. He had, on pretext of getting old Fanny shod, driven off early in the evening, filled with hope of securing legal help for Homer. On the road he had met that tall, distinguished, yellow nigger, Byron Maxwell, driving old man Stacey’s spirited span of bays. Maxwell had smiled contemptuously at Len’s turnout and had held in his bays to speak a word or two with him. Len had never liked, never trusted that nigger with the polished airs and the pullman-ear manners. He was an interloper in Chatville, anyway. Nobody knew him, nor knew where he came from. But Byron was there with the personality which won him friends, particularly among the young folks. He was the handsomest, best-mannered colored man they had ever seen. The ladies simply went wild over him, the young men copied his dress and his swagger. Apparently he had plenty of money. He boarded just outside the town at Stacey’s place. He drove Stacey’s span of bays. He took Stacey’s pretty daughter, Dorcas, out driving. He sang in the Baptist church choir and recited at the social functions. His accomplishments were many. He wore splendid clothes and his tan shoes were the envy of every young colored man in town. It was said of him that he was a college-bred man through and through.
Lenix did not believe it. On general principles he did not believe it. He didn’t want to believe it, consequently, as far as he was concerned, it was not so. He was suspicious of that yaller nigger with the tan shoes, the sunny smile and the scent on his handkerchief. He had even so far proven him a fake in at least one particular. The newcomer had boasted of his boxing prowess and had hinted that he wouldn’t mind showing some of the latest stunts in the game, providing he could get somebody nervy enough to stand up before him in the ring. Lenix had taken it upon himself to accommodate him. He had, apparently, after much wheedling, secured a man who was foolish enough to take Byron’s punishment. A night had been set for the match—or rather exhibition. At the last minute the yellow nigger had tried to back down, but was held to his agreement. So it was up to him to show the beefy, awkward opponent, whose gold tooth shone in a trustful smile, just what a man, who knew how, could do with the gloves. He started in to do it. When Homer Hudson was through with him, they took Byron home on a door. He had never liked Lenix since then, and Lenix knew it. He knew too that Maxwell hated Homer for the whipping he had received at his hands.
So, this night, when Maxwell stopped him on the road and sneeringly asked him what Homer would do now, that his chicken-diet had been cut off, he simply shook his head and answered sadly, “I don’ know, Mr. Maxwell, I sure don’.”
Humility, that was the thing. Len had always found it the best card in his deck. Humility will get you anything, almost. Humility will disarm your enemies even if it does make a certain variety of friend despise one. So, Len had been all humility and had answered the yellow nigger politely and innocently.
“Mr. Stacey says he will make an example of Homer Hudson,” Maxwell had smirked as he clucked to the bays.
Len had driven slowly and thoughtfully on.
At Bridgetown he had been unable to secure a pleader for Homer. At length, he had turned discouraged towards the shed in which old Fanny patiently stood. When passing the grocery store of Jim Weaver, Jim had come and hailed him. Jim had drawn him inside and asked him a question. Len had answered that question. Jim had-told him something more, asked a little favor of him. Len had promised to grant that favor, but right there was where he began to see light, bespeaking hope, victory, freedom—for Homer!
What he knew now, not even the garrulous Weaver could guess. Len had driven home like one in a dream. Now as he lay staring towards the rafters, he whispered over and over, “I can’t get Homer counsel, but I kin get him somefin’ much better.” And having planned his campaign to his liking, Len promptly fell asleep.
TWICE during the following Sunday forenoon he awoke only to twist his nose into the pillow and doze again. He would get up at noon ready for a roast chicken dinner. He had a lot of work to do in the afternoon.
Sunday afternoon found him down at Homer’s isolated home in the valley, the hound pup at his heels. Quietly he made a thorough survey of the yard and outbuildings. He found the Plymouth-rock chicken-feathers in a corner of the yard, also a metal lead pencil with gold-washed cap on which were engraved two initials. Len, spelling out the intricate hieroglyphics was not at all surprised. He sat down on the door-step of Homer’s lonely cottage and gave himself up to deep thought.
All afternoon Len worked, worked to use his own words, “Like a nigger.” That evening he visited Homer and a caucus followed, in which the one member was optimistic and the other shrouded in gloom of the darkest variety.
To all the bright arguments offered by Len, Homer had but one answer. “No lawyer—no chance ob freedom. Jedge McDool say, ‘Cotch a nigger, jug him.’ Dat’s de law.”
Len left Homer weeping weakly, his tears printing disks as big as nickel-pieces on the dust of his cell floor, his head in his hands.
MONDAY morning found Len early at the court-house, but already the usual curious crowd were there awaiting the opening of the doors. Punctually at ten o’clock, Judge McDool ascended the stairs, behind him a group of legal lights carrying black bags and chatting and laughing together, just as though there was no such things as hopeless souls hanging on the arguments they would offer in their behalf.
Len watched them contemptuously. “Dere dey go,” he muttered. “Knowin’ all what’s worf knowin’ in dis here worl’, an despisin’ de unlearned. Not one ob dem shysters but t’ink he knows quite as much as God, not one ob em but t’inks he could bes’ Him in argument, if so he had de chance.” Which simply goes to show the feeling Len entertained towards the legal profession.
Old man Stacey was there, sitting bolt upright at the table, a group of his witnesses about him. The prosecuting attorney was there, a big, pompous man with a Roman nose and a wide ribbon on his glasses. He blustered about and gave orders to the other lawyers. Apparently he had no respect for anyone present, not even the judge on the bench. Byron Maxwell was there, seated among Stacey’s witnesses, looking up smiling and urbane as a pansy looks above mere grass. He was dressed in a pinch-back suit, spotless linen and dotted tie. His expression was bored and superior. The other negroes surveyed him admiringly.
Court opened with a jump. Several minor cases were disposed of with lightning speed. Then the prosecuting attorney stood up and glared about him. Len, sitting in a far corner of the room, failed to catch what was being said, but as Judge McDool nodded, a big policeman came in, leading Homer by the arm.
Len’s mind drifted off a little, and when he came back to his surroundings poor Homer was standing up in the prisoner’s dock, his eyes rolling and his thick lips trembling in nervous fear. The judge gazed upon him, sternly, from above his glasses. “Prisoner at the bar,” he addressed him, “You have heard the charge preferred against you. Are you guilty or innocent?”
“I’se innocent.” Homer simply sputtered the answer. If ever the face of a prisoner in the dock mirrored guilt, that face was Homer’s.
“Has the prisoner no counsel?” Judge McDool addressed the question to the pompous prosecuting attorney. That gentleman shook his head and rubbed his long nose irritably. “I believe not, your worship.”
“Poor devil,” muttered one of the lawyers grouped about the table, to his neighbor. “He’s in for a nice long visit to the pen.”
“Only a miracle can save him,” returned the other. “And the age of miracles is past.”
The judge, the tips of his slender fingers pressed together, sat frowning.
“Have you no counsel, prisoner?” he asked, not unkindly.
Homer shook his head. “No sah, yo’ worship. I aint none.”
There was something of contempt in the glance the old judge threw to the legal lights seated about the table.
Then he addressed Homer again. “Would you like me to postpone your trial until you can secure a lawyer to defend your suit?”
Homer gazed about him helplessly and shook his head. The prosecuting attorney smiled grimly. “Your worship,” he said, urbanely, “the prisoner has had two whole days in which to arrange for counsel. I would suggest that your lordship allow the case to proceed.”
The judge paid no attention to the speaker. He was gazing down in a far corner of the court-room, where a slight commotion was taking place.
“With yore permission, yore wuship,” spoke a calm voice, “I’ll act as counsel fer de prisoner.”
Lenix Ballister came down the aisle, slowly.
Instantly the calm decorum of the court-house was disturbed into a loud buzzing and clapping of hands. The lawyers grouped around the table were laughing.
The gavel rapped out sharply. “Order or I shall have the court cleared.”
Silence fell once more.
"You nave my permission to act as the prisoner’s counsel, Mr. Ballister.” Judge McDool settled back in his throne. “Let us proceed with the case, please.”
THE prosecuting attorney arose, with dignity, and adjusted his glasses. One long, killing look he gave Lenix, then turning his back upon the interloper, he spoke.
“Call the first witness. Andrew White.”
“Andrew White,” repeated the uniformed dignitary who acts as court-parrot.
A short-bodied, long-legged negro with one shoulder higher than the other, came forward to the witness stand.
The prosecuting attorney beamed on him in a friendly fashion, as he took the oath with impressive dignity.
“Your name is Andrew White?”
“You are, I believe, employed by the plaintiff, Mr. Stacey.”
“Yes sah. I does his chores nights and mornin’s.”
“Did you, on the night of July fifteenth, see Homer Hudson, the prisoner?”
“Yes sah, I sure seen him.”
“Will you please state just where you saw him?”
“He was loafin’ roun’ on de road jes’ outside Mister Stacey’s hen-houses."
“Did his attitude impress you, at the time, as being peculiar?”
“Sure did. He done hide his head when I pass him an’ he hab a sack ober his arm.”
“Just so, Mr. White. Now will you be good enough to tell the court exactly what you did after finding the prisoner loafing about the premises of your employer?”
“Yes sah. Fust off I go up to Mister Stacey’s house to tell him bout seein’ Hudson dere. I fin’ dat Mister Stacey’s away in country. I meet up wif Mister Byron Maxwell, who am trainin’ Mister Stacey’s young hosses. I tell Mister Maxwell bout seein’ Hudson near chicken-pens. Mister Maxwell he say dat Mister Stacey’s been losin’ powerful many fat Plymouth chickuns lately. He say us bes’ sneak down an’ look about Hudson’s premises, while he’s away. So us sneak down ter Hudson’s place an’ us fin’ a heap ob feathers down in corner ob his yard. Us come away den, an’ I went along home. Nex’ mornin’ Mister Stacey and Mister Maxwell dey come lookin’ fo’ me. Dat night, it seem, Mister Stacey’s coops was entered ag’in, an’ twenty fat hens stole. Dat’s all I knows, sah.”
THE prosecuting attorney smiled commendingly. “Thanks, Mr. White. You may stand down.”
“Jes’ a minute, if yo’ please.”
Lenix moved forward and stood before the witness.
“Yo’ say yo’ all tends ter Mister Stacey’s chores, Mister White?”
“Yo’ tend ter de chickuns, as well as de hosses an’ cattle?”
“No. Don’ tend de chickuns.”
“Will yo’ please ’splain to de cou’t what yo’ was doin’ in de vicinity of de chickun-coops on de night of July fifteenth?”
“No quibblin’, if yo’ please. Ans'er, what was yo’ doin’ near de chickun-coops on dat night?”
“I jes’ happened dar, dat’s all. If yo’ all means ter ’sinuato—”
Len glanced at his worship. The judge scowled at the witness.
“Please hold yourself strictly to evidence, witness,” he adjured, sternly.
Len pointed a long finger at the witness, “Yo’ knew dat Mister Stacey was ’way from home on dat night, didn’ yo’?”
“No, not ’xactly—”
“No, yo’ see—”
“Didn’ yo’ tell Abe White, yore third cousin, dat afternoon yo’ say yo’ saw de prisoner loafin’ near coops, dat Mister Stacey had gone ter country an’ wouldn’ be back till near midnight?”
“Well, maybe I did.”
“Den yo’ didn’ jes’ ’xactly go lookin’ fer Mister Stacey, as yo’ say yo’ did, knowin’ dat he was off from home?”
“Come ter think ob it, I didn’.”
“Yo’ all went lookin’ fer Mister Maxwell instead, didn’ yo’?”
“Mister Maxwell an’ yo’ am mighty good frien’s, I understan’. Cronies, so’s to speak?”
“We’se fair frien’s, yes.”
Len stood thinking, hands deep in his pockets.
“Mister White,” he said suavely, “reviewin’ yore past experience in de chickun-takin’ business, do yo’ all fink a man who understood dat perfession as well as yerself would be loafin’ roun’ in plain view ob any passer-by, close in ter a coop he contemplated visitin’?”
The witness’ mouth fell open.
The prosecuting attorney leaped to his feet. “I object, your worship,” he cried. “The witness is not obliged to answer that question. Neither must counsel for the prisoner cast insinuations on the character of the witness.”
JUDGE McDOOL’S face was hidden behind his handkerchief. The lawyers about the table were grinning broadly.
“Yore worship,” bowed Len, blandly, “I hab no wish ter stray from de paff narrow justice done allow me. I will put de question in a different way.”
He turned to the witness again.
“If yo’ intended to steal chickuns, Mister White, would yo’ be snoopin’ ’round de coop long about dusk, waitin’ fer de dark ob de moon?”
“But I don’—”
“Ans’er, yes or no.”
“T’anks. Dat’s all.” Len sat down, and the witness walked dazedly from the stand.
Counsel for the prisoner allowed the following three witnesses to give testimony without cross-examination. Even Mr. Stacey himself, whose evidence was not of great value to his cause, was allowed to stand down without being asked a question by Lenix.
The most damaging evidence so far offered was that given by the officer, Stanton, who had arrested Homer. Following the placing of the prisoner in the lock-up, he had visited Homer’s home and had found several plump chickens dressed and ready for the pan.
It was not until the dandified and smiling Byron Maxwell took the stand, that Len stiffened from thought, and glanced up at Homer’s black face.
“That nigger, Len, is smart as a razor,” whispered one lawyer to another. “You watch him, now. He’s got a bomb up his sleeve for that sleek, yellow coon. I saw him wink at the prisoner.”
The pompous prosecuting attorney was greatly pleased with this witness. Never in his long legal career had he met with a witness so simply clear in the delineation of damaging evidence against a prisoner as Mr. Maxwell was proving himself. Not only did he corroborate Mr. White’s testimony, but he offered other and convincing evidence of the prisoner’s guilt.
He had, he swore, seen Homer cleaning the stolen chickens by the light of a lantern. Previous to this he had come upon the prisoner one night, early in July, attempting to pry a board from the high-fence surrounding the chicken-yard, and had warned him that he must stay away from the place or he would inform Mr. Stacey. Homer had promised. Then had followed the theft of the chickens. Witness admitted that he had not wished to accuse the prisoner until he was absolutely sure he held sufficient evidence to convict him. Once having secured this, he had gone to Mr. Stacey with it and the warrant had been sworn out for the prisoner’s arrest.
THE prosecuting attorney thanked the witness. “Your worship, I think this concludes the case—” he began, when Len stepped up and forward again.
The prosecuting attorney, his face flaming and his cheeks puffed out in anger, sank into a chair.
“Mister Maxwell,” asked Len, softly, How long yo’ been in dis town?”
The witness lost his smile. “About two months,” he answered.
“What’s yore perfession?”
“I object,” howled the prosecuting attorney.
“Objection overruled,” snapped the judge. “Proceed, Mr. Ballister.”
“What yore perfession?” Len repeated.
“I’m an evangelist, by profession. But I’m also an adept at training thoroughbred horses.”
“Quite so. Any udder perfession, er trade?”
“Yes, I am a barber, also.”
“Eber been a porter on train?”
“Yo’ say dat yo’ seen de prisoner cleanin’ chickuns by lantern light. Whar was yo’ all at de time?”
“I was behind the hedge.”
“How far away from prisoner?”
“I should say about thirty yards.”
“Are yo’ prepared to say, on yore oaf, dat it was chickuns he was cleanin’?”
“Well, I am sure—”
“Can yo’ swear it was chickuns?”
“I am positive. Yes. I can swear they were chickens.”
“Yo’ know chickuns when yo’ see un, don’ yo?”
“Dat’s what I was led to beliebe. Yo’ all are in chickun-business, yoreself, aint yer?”
With a bound the prosecuting attorney was on his feet again. “Your worship,” he stormed, “Are you going to allow this court of law to be turned into a Comedy Theatre. This negro is crazy.”
“The question is perfectly in order,” returned the judge, severely. “And you will please address prisoner’s counsel by his dignified name.”
He turned and nodded to Lenix.
“I ast yo’ if yo’ am in de chickun-business yo’self, Mister Maxwell?”
“No, I am not.”
“But you sell dressed chickuns, doesn’ yo’?”
The yellow face of the witness grew a trifle grey. “No, I do not.”
“Haven’t yo’ all been takin’ dressed chickuns ober ter Bridgetown, an’ sellin’ em dar?”
“No.” The answer was very faint.
Len stroked his chin thoughtfully.
“Thin’ hard now. Didn’ yo’, only las’ Satterday mornin’, took two baskets ob dressed fowls ober ter Bridgetown, an’ sell em?”
Len sighed. The prosecuting attorney snorted and rubbed his nose.
Len turned slowly towards the witness, who, believing his grilling over, was preparing to depart.
“Mister Maxwell, hab yo’ ebber been ’rested fer chickun stealin’?”
The prosecuting attorney hurled himself to his feet. “I object to this farce—” your worship.
“Be careful, Lenix,” warned the judge.
“Yore honor, an’ my learned frie’d,” said Len suavely. “I purpose showin’ de cou’t dat de witness in de stan’ is de man who has been stealin’ Mister Stacey’s chickuns.”
Silence, deep and profound, followed this remarkable statement of counsel for seconds, and then the old court-house fairly rocked with cheers and hand-clappings. It was fully fifteen minutes before order could be restored.
“Proceed, Mr. Ballister,” then scowled the judge, whose wrist ached from handling the gavel.
Len turned once more to the witness. “I ask yo’ again, hab yo’ eber been ’rested fer chickun-stealin’?”
Len produced the pencil with the initials. “Is dis pencil wif de ’nitials B.M. yours, Mister Maxwell?”
Byron stepped down, defiantly, and Lenix turned to the judge. “I’d like Mr. Wm. Weaver called as witness, yore honor.”
“Mister Weaver,” said Lenix, to the tall, red-headed man who took the stand. “Yo’ keeps a grocer-store at Bridgetown, I believe?”
“Yo’ saw the las’ witness, Mister Maxwell. Does yo’ know him?”
“In a business sense only.”
“Please explain what yo’ all mean by ‘business sense’, Mister Weaver.”
“Well, Maxwell has been bringing me in dressed fowl, from time to time.”
“Turkeys, geese, er ducks, Mister Weaver?"
“Oh, chickuns. Did Mister Maxwell eber tell yo’ where he was gettin’ dem chickuns?”
"Yes, I asked him and he told me his employer, Mr. Stacey, was sending them in. He said my price was two cents better than he could get at Chatville.”
LEN glanced at the judge. “Dat finishes de case fer de ’fence, yore wuship. I feel assured dat yore honor will see dat de prisoner hab been de victim of cleber rogues who sought ter fasten guilt on ter him.”
“Do you wish to cross-question the witness?” asked the judge of the prosecuting attorney.
But that gentleman was gathering up his papers and simply shook his head.
There was a slight commotion near the door. A tall, yellow negro was seen striving to work himself outside through the spectators. Judge McDool’s voice rang out: “Stanton, place that man, Byron Maxwell, under arrest.” Then turning to the wondering Homer, he said:
“Prisoner, you are honorably discharged.”
A cheer rocked the building. Homer’s gold tooth gleamed and glittered with all the radiancy of a forty-caret diamond, as he stepped from the dock a free man.
“Len,” said Homer when they were once more out in God’s sweet air and sunshine. “Len, yo’ all mus’ hab worked like sin fer ter plan a case like yo’ all put up? Len, I’se powerful proud ob yo’, an’ grateful ter yo’.”
Len shrugged his shoulders. “Sho, taint nuffin’ ’tall, Homer. A feller hab ter work hard if we wanter earn firty dollars counsel fees by gettin’ his client off scot-free. “But Homer, lis’en; whar did yo’ get dem dressed chickuns, yo’ had?”
Homer glanced fearfully about.
“Oh dem dressed chickuns? Why, I done lifted one of Byron Maxwell’s baskets he had ready ter take ober ter Mister Weaver, dat’s whar I get ’em.”