Lenix Ballister —Diplomat
Archie P. McKishnie
Author of “Willow, the Wisp,” “Link Gaffum,” “The Prairie Trail,” etc.
LENIX BALLISTER, having finished his breakfast of personally prepared bacon, toast and green tea, wiped his greasy black chin on a checkered sleeve and pushed back his chair without noise. Noise was all right in its place, at a picnic, election or first of July celebration for instance, but there were times when the absence of sound was to be preferred. This was one of those times.
From the bedroom, on the farther side of the kitchen, came subdued snores. JaneAnn. the partner of the lanky negro’s few joys and many sorrows, was a heavy sleeper. Lenix smiled fondly as he listened to those “all’s well” signs, and softly sidled towards the pantry. As he reached the door the old wheezy clock started to gurgle and spit out the hours. Lenix stood, the smile frozen on his countenance, his eyes—pop and apprehensive—glued to the crack of the bedroom door. He breathed a sigh of relief as the clock choked on the last stroke of six, and the snores of his better half proclaimed uninterrupted harmony.
“Two long, one short,” Lenix mumbled dumbly. “Jane-Ann won’t wake till come two short one long. Jes yo’ gib me a minute er two, den she kin wake all she
wants to; jes yo’-”
He was in the pantry now, feeling gingerly along under the paper on its lower shelf. Jane-Ann, he knew, kept her milk and bread change there. He had, only the night before, as he caressed the hound pup by the fire, seen with his own eyes, Jane-Ann deposit two shiny quarters
Twice did his long fingers make a hurried but exhaustive search the full length of the shelf, then he stood back with mouth half open, a baffled expression on his face. “How come it ain’t dar?” he muttered.
He stood pondering the question, eyes rolled ceilingward, tongue in cheek. Then suddenly the light of hope went out from those eyes and his shoulders drooped despondently.
“Ain’t dat jes’ like a woman?” he nodded. “Jane-Ann done got up for drink ob water, in de night; she shorely steal back her quarters.”
He retreated from the pantry, head bowed, whistling voicelessly.
npHE hound pup uncurled himself from behind the stove and barked joyfully. The negro’s stockinged foot caught him, as, too late, he turned to scoot for cover. Straight over the stove he sailed, smack up against the half-open bedroom door, to alight, after a somersault, on the bosom of Jane-Ann.
Came a howl and a muffled snort, followed by more howls and a high-pitched
“Yo’ Len! Whar is yo’ at?”
“I’se hyar, JaneAnn, right hyar.”
Lenix shuffled towards the bedroom, his attitude one of commingled fear, defiance and conciliation. Jane-Ann was sitting up in bed, her corkscrew curls aquiver and the fear of God in her eyes.
“Len, was I dreamin’, er did a fiery chariot ride across my face? Ans’er me, nigger!” There was a perceptible squaring of her shoulders as though she was preparing to launch herself from bed ; and Lenix held up a mollifying hand.
“It’s dat purp,
He done took anudder fit, jes’ now.”
“Anudder fit?” The ponderous colored woman swallowed hard and turned horrified eyes on her husband. “Anudder fit! Why fo’ yo’ all say anudder fit? Dat Orinoco neber had no fits nohow, ’cept fits ob foolishness.”
Lenix’s eyes returned that gaze sorrowfully. His look said as plainly as words could say, “Now you’ve found out what I have been striving to shield you from learning.”
“Jane-Ann,” he said, gently. “Dis hyar one make up de twenty-th’rd fit dat pup done hab since las’ Tuesday. I reckoned to get some med’cine an hab him cured afore yo’ fin’ it out, seein’ how much store yo’ all set by dat Orinoco.”
The woman covered her eyes with her hands and rocked to and fro. “Oh, ma pore lil’ pup, Oh, ma pore lil’ Orinoco,” she wailed. “He’ll shore fit hisself inter his grave, Len; he shore will.”
“Shaw, Jane-Ann, dat purp aint got nothin’ wrong wif him but worms. I done get up quiet dis mornin’ intendin’ to sneak ober t’ de drug store an’ get him two bits worf ob sassifugii fer cure ’im, but I fin’ I aint got de two bits.”
“What’s dat yo’ goin’ ter get for him?” “Sassifugii. But I fin’ I aint got de two bits.” Len sighed, and waited, leaning against the door-jamb.
Jane-Ann sat, eyes half closed, thick lips mouthing the unpronounceable. “Lor’, Len, yo’ all don’t mean ter say all dat name don’ cost moren’ two bits?”
Len sighed again. His eyes were on
one of Jane-Ann’s stockings, through which showed the imprint of several round disks. He shambled into the bedroom, managing to touch the stocking as he made to peer under the bed in search of the pup. It gave forth a cheerful metallic sound. “I reckon two bits wouldn’t get nigh enuff to cure dat Orinoco outright,” he said, as though considering. “Dat sassifugii am awful costly med’cine.” “Whar am dat pup at now, Len?” “He’s twichin’ away under bed.”
“Well, look yo’ nigger. I’se goin’ to hide my head under de sheet and yo’ all get hold of him and twitch him outin hyar. Fust, yo’ han’ me dat stockin’. Now den, turn yo’ fool back and shet yo’ eyes. Ise goin’ to commit anudder foolishness an’
gib yo’ fo’ bits to get dat sass-.”
“Sassisfugii,” prompted Len, his hand outstretched for the money.
“And see yo’ get de right stuff,” admonished his wife as she dropped the money in his black palm and jerked the bed covers over her head.
IE NIX issued forth into the summer -J air jubilantly. An all-night rain had laved the dingy ten blocks allotted to the colored population of Chatville to a semblance of almost purity. In the morning sunshine the whitewashed shacks of the negroes glimmered through the lifting mists. Lenix felt the sweet freshness with his soul and the four bits, deep in his pocket, with clinging fingers. It was a great combination. Fifty cents in real
money and a gladsome world in which to spend it.
He hurried down the path to the gate, deeming it expedient not to tarry lest Jane-Ann, possessing a woman’s mind and a woman’s intuition, change that mind and prove that intuition correct by summoning him back and demanding the return of the money.
Once outside his own yard, however, and the negro’s long legs fell mechanically
into their accustomed—I’se goin’ don’ know where—jes’ goin’ I don’t care— shuffle.
Apparently he was the only living being awake and abroad. His neighbors were none of them early risers, unless indeed it was Abe Smutter who sometimes had to get up on account of asthma. Len felt sorry for Abe. “Mus’ be misery ter hab ter get up when de’y wasn’t mithin’ ter get up fer.”
Down through the sleeping district he passed, clinking his two bits and singing softly.
“Oh take me on de steamboat,
Down de ole Miss-iss-ipp-I;
Oh I’se a gwin’ ter leab yo’,
But honey don’ yo’ cry.
Jes listen fer de whistle,
It’ll sure soun’ by-and-by,
Den us two will all get wedded,
On de ole Miss-iss-ipp-1.”
CUDDENLY Lenix stiffened in his ^ tracks, and stood half crouching in the shelter of a friendly lilac-bush. His attitude resembled that of a rangy pointer, who has struck the trailing scent of a bevy of birds, combined with that of a blafck-berrying bear which has unconsciously come across the track of a pole-
From around a distant corner of the silent street had issued the short, squat figure of one, Homer Hudson; and of all men he was the least desired by Lenix on this particular morning.
Lenix had bought the hound pup from Homer, purchase price being one dollar, and after vain promises to pay had, after being dunned and finally threatened with bodily chastisement from the seller, promised to deliver the dollar to Homer without fail on Saturday night. This he had failed to do; and now, Homer, with wrath in his heart and a reputation of some note as a boxer behind him, was without doubt sauntering towards Lenix’s place of
abode there to make good his promise.
Lenix snuggled closer to the lilac and wished it was a forest and himself a woodtick, so that he might creep beneath the bark of a tree. But he wasn’t. He was a tall negro—six foot one, and his feet were so large they seemed to his own fascinated gaze—when he could lift it from that advancing menace long enough to note it—to reach half across the narrow street.
Homer caught sight of Lenix and hailed him sarcastically. “Reckon yo’ all ’speet ter be drafted, Len, seein’s yo’ am practisin’ hidin’ up.”
Lenix smiled wanly and limped forth from his shelter. “Jes’ restin’. Bad stitch in my side. Awake all night, couldn’ sleep nohow. Jes on my way ober ter see yo’! Homer.”
“How ‘bout dat dollar yo’ all owe me?”
Homer stood, short, bowed legs spread wide as though braced for a leap, arms hanging loosely at his sides and fingers working. He had flung his felt hat on the ground, a little trick he had when badly wrought up or laboring under suppressed pressure, and gazing upon him with the fascinated eyes of one about to be sacrificed by a whim of fate, Lenix was forced to admit his chances of extracting himself from an imp-horned dilemma slim indeed. And still, in the very teeth of impending disaster, he could afford to feel pity and contempt for that yaller no-count Homer. Superior to him the other might be in strength and agility
—but in intellect, astuteness and adroitness in side-stepping the manifold worries that infest existence, Lenix was as a giant to a pigmy.
“I say, how ’bout dat dollar?”
Homer’s round, shaven head protruded further from between the massive shoulders until the wrinkles in his flat, broad neck straightened to a smooth surface.
There were little flecks of foam in the corners of his thick lips. The gold tooth, the envy and admiration of many, had lost its sparkle in the greater flame of his rolling, blood-shot eyes.
Lenix pondered the situation with lightening mind. “Dat nigger is bad! He sure been campin’ on his grievance so hard it bring de froth in his mouf. He means business, an’ I doan’ want no hand in it nohow.”
HE was holding Homer off by pure nonchalance, a friendiy, brotherly attitude which his trembling knees belied woefully, as he shifted his position a trifle.
So men, facing dire peril, have fended off hurt. Lenix had done it before; with luck, it might be done again. But in this particular case it did not seem likely.
He felt like a man who had been placed before one of those giant, rock-throwing catapults of old historic times. A very cyclone of ripping, shattering terror was before him, and ready to spring. And he was directly in its path.
“Homer, I aint got it all but I’se got half. I was bringin’ it ober ter yo’.” Len’s hand came forth from his pocket holding two bright silver quarters.
“Hand it ober.” The money exchanged hands. “How come yo’ aint got it all, Len?” “Jane-Ann done sneak half, Homer.” “Humph. Serve yo’ all right for havin’ a Jane-Ann. Come long den !”
“To yore place, ter get dat udder fo’ bits from Jane-Ann.”
Lenix’s face grew sober. His right eye squinted shut and the corner of his mouth drooped. “Lor, how yo’ do joke, Homer.”
“No joke. Come ’long I tells yo’.” “Homer, lis’en.” Len placed a detaining hand on the pulling arm and half swung the yellow man about. “Do yo’ all know what you’se plump runnin’ inter by goin’ ter my place, now?”
Fear leaped into the eyes of the other. “Wha’ say? What am I runnin’ inter?” Lenix drew back with some dignity. “I don’ jes’ know, after all I’se done fer yo’, Homer, and considerin’ the manifestations yo’ hab shown in appreciation ob it all, I don’ know as I should shield yo’ from yo’re jest deserts. All I kin tell yo’ is dat dar’s trouble stalkin’ at yore side like a shadder. Dar’s a bony hand hoverin’ ober yo’ ready ter pluck yo’ deep!”
HOMER’S face grew grey. The hands fumbling the dust from his white felt hat trembled. He tried to glance defiantly at Len, but his eyes twisted off at a tangent.
“Len, who all’s layin’ fer me? Tell me !” There was no bullying in the voice now. It quaked. “I aint done nothin’ ter nobody, I tells yo’.”
Len sighed. It was beyond all human power to sink home conviction in a mind such as Homer’s, the sigh said.
“Len, tell me, who’s got it in fer me?” Homer’s voice was pleading now. The sweat stood out on his face in great beads. Apprehension, fear of the unknown, which has been the witch to ride down the souls of all negroes ever since they were drafted from the African soil, was clutching hard at Homer’s at this instant.
“Better sneak back home right now, Homer, while yo’ got good sneakin’.” Lenix stood up and straightened his tie which had become disarranged in his hastv toilet of the early morning.
“Cause it’s better to carry yo’ own head home on yo’ shoulders noiv, den fer yo’ all to be carried home a little later wif out it, aint it?”
^ “Whoall want’s my head? Tell me,
“No, I done tole yo’ too much already.” “I’m yore good fre’n’, Len. Yo’ all know dat, don’t yo’?”
Len pondered while he brushed one dusty foot with its mate. “Dat all jest depends,” he said slowly. “Maybe yo’ all call it fren’ship to sell me a mongrel pup fer a dollar af’er yo’ all has been ordered by Jedge McDool ter make way wif him kase he was a menace to society and chickuns. Maybe yo’ calls dat fren-ship, Homer; I doesn’t, dat’s all.’
Homer stood with bowed head, shuffling from one foot to the other. “I done tole yo’ he’s kill chickuns, Len,” he muttered. “I didn’t deceive yo’ none, ’cept I didn’ tell yo’ I was ordered ter kill him.”
“Well, dats yore lookout. I’se paid yo’ fer him, le’stwise part.”
“Len, I tell yo’ what I do. Yo’ jes’ tell me who’s layin’ fer me, an I gib yo’ back yore fo’ bits.”
Homer’s gold tooth glimmered like the light of promise. His whole manner bespoke affability and good temper. But the sweat stood out like transparent dewberries on his shining dome. The whites of his eyes showed, as he watched Lenix for signs.
Len shook his head. “Homer, I reckon I can’t take back dat money. On de udder han’ I’se mighty glad I paid it ter yo’ all. I was ’fraid you'd refuse to ’cept it.”
He paused and let his melancholy eyes rest on the startled ones of the other. “It make vie safe, yo’ see, Homer?” “What yo’ mean, makes yo’ safe?” The question came like a pistol shot, pungent with suspicion, wispy with fear. “What yo’ mean, Len?”
“I knows what I mean, and dat’s ennuf fer me. So long, Homer.” Len gave another twist to his tie and took a step or two up street. “Yo’ better sneak back home now, Homer,” he admonished over his shoulder. “Yo’ treated me dirt mean, but I don’ hole out no gredge. If anythin’ do happen, Homer, I’ll see yore remains get decent repose. So long.”
Len shuffled off, humming:
“Oh, take me on de steamboat,
Down on de ole Miss-iss-ipp-I :
“Len, Oh Len.”
T-JE turned slowly, a frown on his brow. 1 A Homer came panting up to him. In one hand he held a dirty canvas sack, which as he tossed it aloft, gave forth a cheerful, jingling sound.
“Len, kin I all buy dat houn’ pup back from yo’?”
Len considered, “Yo’ kin, but I reckon yo’ won’t, Homer.”
“Fer why, I won’t?”
“Kase I would jest naturally hab ter
tack on a little sumfin’ fer med’cine and extries dat pup cos’ me, Homer, and yo’ wouldn’t pay it. Anyhow,” he added, dolefully, “fer why should I stan’ ’tween yo’ and de law and in all probability a load ob buckshot.”
“Len, will free dollars took dat Orinoco?”
“Now look yo’ hyar, Homer.” Len put his two hands on the yellow man’s shoulders, and his sad eyes probed his soul. “I’d like exceedingly to help yo’ outin’ dis scrape yore penurious soul has done dragged yo’ inter, but I don’t feel like goin’ up strong agin’ de law and Jedge McDool. No, not no more. I’se had ennuf of de law an’ Jedge McDool.”
Homer stood, the picture of desolation. His soul had slumped so low that it had dragged his shoulders into a melancholy droop after it, it seemed. All his bravado had vanished. A great and nameless terror was sitting upon him, taloning into his spirit and gloating on his downfall.
“Len, tole me. Does Jane-Ann harbour ill-feelin’ ober dis ter dat extent?” he whispered huskily.
“Yo’ knows Jane-Ann,” answered Len, with finality.
“An’ she done t’ink I played yo’ so low down a trick dat she load dat long musket ; am dat so, Len?”
“Homer, I aint sayin’. All I say is, yo’
knows Jane-Ann and yo’ knows dat musket. I done tell yo’ tell yo’ tar keep low, and now I’m frue.”
“Oh, Len.” Homer’s voice was a wail now. “Oh, Len, fer why should I meet up wif all dis hyar trouble ! Look yo’, Len, ef I gib yo’ fo’ dollars for dat pup and promise ter make way wif him right away, will Jane-Ann be satisfied d’ye t’ink?”
Len considered. “Look hyar, Homer,” he said at length, “I do dis fer yo’, an likely I regret doin’ it¡ but I’ll do it. I’ll sell yo’ back dat pup fer fo’ dollars. Dat’s all right so far. But den, der’s dis hyar ter consider. Jane-Ann she come ter jest naturally lub dat pup and won’t part wif him nohow. She all is willin’ ter shoot yore head off fer foolin’ wif de law and fleecin’ me, but she won’t ebber gib dat pup up! Aint dat jes like a woman?”
“I don’ know, nebber had no woman and don’ want no woman. What den is bes’ ter do, Len?”
LEN felt in a pocket and drew out a little bag of fine-cut. He placed a generous wad of the tobacco in the pouch of his cheek, spat thoughtfully on the sidewalk, and scratched his head.
“Homer, gib me dat fo’ dollars.”
Homer, hope in his eyes, passed sixteen shining quarters over with trembling hands.
“Now den, de pup am yourn ag’in.” “Yes, Len.”
“Now den, yo’ all gib me back dat pup, fer mithin’. Dat’s makin’ ’way wif him, wifout gain, see?”
“Yes, Len, he’s yourn.”
“All right. Now I’ll gib him ter JaneAnn. She do Judge McDool’s washin’. Ole Jedge think powerful lot ob her. She say ter Jedge. ‘Jedge, I done got dat dear little pup from Homer Hudson. I save him when Homer is drownin’ him in riber. I fish him out and take him home. Yo’ all don’ min’ me akeepin’ dat pup?’ An’ de ole Jedge he’ll say. ‘Jane-Ann, yo’ go right 'long keepin’ dat pup.’ And likely he gib her two bits to buy Orinoco a collar. Dats how we fix it, Homer?”
Homer’s shoulders squared themselves and his gold tooth showed in a smile of understanding.
“Len, yo’ all got a great head on yore shoulders,” he said admiringly.
“Which, seein’s it’s kept yore head on yourn, yo’ might well say so,” agreed Len, as he shook hands on the bargain.
“And Len, ’bout dat musket, now?” Homer paused in his get-away to falter this last question.
Len smiled broadly. “Sho, don’t yo’ gib yo’self no uneasiness ’bout dat musket, Homer. I done sole it day ’fore yestiddy.”
CLEAVING the broadening sun-rays on the gladsome June morning as gently and silently as a joy-seeking swallow, Lenix Ballister pursued his way through the district allotted the colored population of Chatville. Here and there a twisting spiral of smoke proclaimed the inhabitants of some of the whitewashed houses stirring; occasionally a smell of frying bacon and “taters” drifted from open doorway to assail his nostrils. But no human soul was visible.
No longer he walked with that—I’se cornin’ don’ know where—I’se cornin’, I don’ care shuffle. A new dignity had settled upon him, straightening the droop in his shoulders and the kink in his neck so that his face looked out and challenged the world. His bearing was the bearing of a conqueror. No longer he hummed the song, “Down on de Miss-iss-ipp-I.” Deep in a remote corner of his glad soul was the echo of the refrain, throbbing at neutral, to be levered into action when needed; but it was not a time for song, or such lighter, trivial things of life. It was the hour of realization, realization of achievement, of conquest.
What Lenix had succeeded in achieving that morning meant not only new laurels for his crown, but a wealth of four dollars in quarters, and the knowledge that his power to cope with a difficult situation was
greater than even he himself had sup-
This realization made him giddy. His superstitious nature prompted him to accord his success to luck largely. But this his pride and conceit forbade; accordingly a compromise was affected, diplomacy and luck sharing fifty-fifty.
It looked like the beginning of a perfect day. Lenix conned the events just transpired over, as he skirted the cabin of Holdaway, foreman of the Brady stavemill, for fear that alert negro might spy him and want to know why he was shyin’ away from his work of cutting barrelstaves. This was no moment for volplaning down to earth and effecting a difficult and what might be a disastrous landing; no time for the discussion of sordid and earthly things. It was a free country, a word brimful of life, and color and promise.
TTAVING safely side-stepped inquiry 1 from boss Holdaway, Lenix dived into a weed-grown, vacant lot and scratched about among a pile of apple-boughs. He straightened up at last and his long black face cracked in a grin of joy. He put the can of worms in his pocket and the catfish line in the bosom of his flannel shirt. Then he continued across the lot and finally emerged on the sloping bank of the
Day broadened. A blossom-scented breeze sprang up, gathering spicy freight in its swooping flight across grassy valleys and banks strewn with wild clover, to speed onwards towards the city where tall smoke-stacks were belching forth volumes of sooty cloud and ribbons of white steam were shooting heavenward to the sound of seven o’clock whistles.
And, just as Lenix had skirted the vigilant boss, Holdaway, so the vagrant breeze skirted this pile of jargon and smoke and twisted outward and on, over wild, free fields and woods, to drift back again, tired and drunk with the sweets of life, to a shady pocket in the river valley, there to sigh to rest on a shiny-faced angular negro, stretched at full length on the mossy bank.
So does like seek like. Lenix, stretched in an attitude which was the very essence of contentment, fish-line knotted about his ankle, long arms linked behind his head, may have lacked the wild valley-wind’s sweetness, but he possessed its love of freedom and hatred of smoke, din and jar. And so, comrades with but a single purpose, they fell asleep together.
“TV/JIS’ BALLISTER, what all happen
ivj ter Len?”
The portly woman bending above the wash-tub raised a sweat-streaked face from above foaming suds at the question, and her rolling eyes fastened on the man leaning over the picket fence.
“What yo’ all mean, what happen ter him? Aint he at de mill, Mister Holdaway?”
“No, aint bin dar dis mornin’. Thout maybe he was sick.” Holdaway’s black hands gave the staunch fence a twist as though desirous of proving its strength against a sudden onslaught. Jane-Ann was noted for her disposition to act first and think afterward, and the one closest to her usually got the benefit of her actions.
“Well,” she said at length, as she wiped the suds from her arms and proceeded to roll down her sleeves. “He aint sick; not yit. But he’s goin’ ter be, when I cotches
“Whare am he at, d’ye s’pose. Mis’ Ballister?”
Continued on page 80
Continued from page 29
“Did yo’ all glance in Abe White’s pool room on way ober, Mister Holdaway?” “Yesam; he wan’t dar.”
“An’ de barber shop?”
“Not dar eder.”
“And dar aint no delegations come to town dat yo’ knows on?”
“No, dar’s a circus cornin’ ter Bridgetown nex’ Wednesday, but dar aint nuthin’ with bands ner banners hyar right now, Mis’ Ballister.”
“Well, anyfing from a tin whistle ter a gun-coupon would be ’nuff ter get dat worthless nigger goin’.”
Jane-Ann’s tones were quiet and sinister. “What Use goin’ to do wif dat Len, I don’ know, I reckon I jest bus’ him up.”
HOLDAWAY shuffled uneasily. “Ef yo’ could jest wait till I gets dat pile ob basswood bolts cut inter barrel-staves, I’d be much obleeged, Mis’ Ballister. Don’t know how were goin’ ter get de work done wifout Len. Nobody kin tetch him at cuttin’ staves, and I needs him. Why Mis’ Ballister, dat Len he make two sebenty a day, ober dar at de mill.
“What’s dat yo’ say he make?” JaneAnn moved slowly towards the fence, rigid arms at her sides, head thrust straight out before her.
“Two sebenty.” Holdaway shrank a foot or so back from the fence, his fascinated eyes on Jane-Ann’s.
“And he be payin’, inter me, one ten fer ebery day he work. Oh, jest yo’ wait ’till I gets a chance to land on dat lyin’ Len ; jes yo' wait.”
“I can’t wait no lon’er.” Holdaway’s tones were crisp and business-like now. “I reckon only fing I kin do is go get Cy Green ter come and do de cuttin’.” He nodded and moved off down the street.
“Mister Holdaway, will yo’ ail please hoi’ up a minute?” Jane-Ann had snatched her sunbonet from the ground, opened the garden gate and was almost at his heels, as the mill-boss turned with a start.
“Mister Holdaway, yo’ aint goin’ ter surplace Len till I tole yo’, aint dat right?” Holdaway, diminutive beside the towering wrath confronting him, gulped hard and stammered an unintelligible something about having to get out his work. “I’m all willin’ to hoi’ off till noon, pervidin’ Len come then,” he compromised.
“An ef that no-count nigger aint altogedder fit fer work den, me jes naturally wantin’ to make him feel good an sick—yo’ goin’ to hoi’ his place of cutter at yore mill jest de same!”
Holdaway scratched his wooly head and blinked up at Jane-Ann.
“Kase why?” he inquired, with an as-
sumption of bravado he was far from feel-
“Kase ef yo’ don’t, I lay ter tell Jedge McDool all ’bout how yo’ done fleece yo’ men, shootin’ craps at noontimes.”
“Who say I shoot craps at noontimes?” “Len, he say it in his sleep, an’ I listen. Jedge McDool he’s mighty hard on any form ob gamblin’, Mister Holdaway.”
HOLDAWAY stood mouthing his quid of tobacco reflectively. There is such a thing as a devil and a deep sea and such a thing as a “nigger” being between them.
He could either hold Len’s job for him, indefinitely, or have information laid against him for gambling and inciting others to gamble. Holdaway did not stand so high with the police-court judge that he could hope to escape paying a fine or perhaps serving a month or two in jail for the illegal offence. He had appeared before the old judge twice already on similar charges, and had been warned that the third time would bring dire consequences.
“Mis’ Ballister,” he spoke at length, and there was reproach in his tones. “You misunderstan’ my motives entirely. All I was aimin’ ter do was get dat nigger, Cy. Green, fer dis af’ernoon, but I reckon I don’t want dat yaller nigger nohow. He can’t cut staves side ob Len a little bit; why, Mis’ Ballister, yo’ doan mean ter say yo’ thout I was passin’ Len’s job ober to dat Cy, does yo’?”
The big woman sighed her relief. “Well now, Mister Holdaway, it seemed like dat, but I might a knowed yo’ wan’t aimin’ to let Len out.”
The thought of such a misconstruction being put on his words threw Holdaway in a paroxysm of laughter.
“Ho-ho, ha-ha, Lor’ sakes alive! Oh, Mis’ Ballister, dats too funny fer me.” And the mill-boss doubled up and laughed till the tears ran down his face. “Let Len out? Well I should say not. Aint no cutter kin tetch him, I tell yo’. I won’er vvhar am he at, now? I do wish I knowed.”
Jane-Ann smiled with her lips and looked murder with her eyes.
“Well, Mister Holdaway, I aim ter do a leotle gumshoin’ aroun’, an fin’ out whar da nigger am at. An ’ef I lead him home hull it am on your account, mind you. An' I do hope yo' all will see to it dat dem bolts am only half steamed, so’s dat knife will naturally jerk de very vitals outin dat fool nigger.”
Holdaway turned slowly millwards. He had come forth armed as one with authority to dictate, a foreman who at least had
a right to know the whys and wherefores of things. He was returning, a much subdued and crestfallen mill-boss; and trouble stalked behind him like a shadow.
He skipped a step and his Adam’s apple shot against his windpipe, in its rapid rise and fall, as Jane-Ann’s garden gate clicked with a harsh, metallic click resembling the cocking of a pistol. “Dat big woman ob Len’s done got a mos’ obdurate disposition,” he soliloquized as he turned the corner. “I reckon she’ll mos’ smash Len flat when she cotches him. I wonder whar dat nigger am at?”
BUT he needn’t have worried any about Lenix, who, right at that particular minute, was enjoying the freedom of a nature-loving gypsy, the dream of the suddenly-wealthy, the conscience of the righteous and well-doing.
Before him the yellow Thames pursued its sleepy crawl of three miles per hour; all about him swished green trees; alderblossoms sent him their faint perfumes; bees droned an accompaniment to his drowsy thoughts.
On a piece of chalk-line, snubbed to the root of a willow, two big cat-fish half in and half out. of the water sluggishly protested their ’ captivity by occasional splashes.
Two big cat-fish, four - dollars in money, a whole big, free world, sunshine, scents, silence and dreams. Holdaway or anybody else in the world needn’t have worried any concerning one who possessed so much.
Lenix had slept a beautiful and untroubled sleep, broken only by sundry jerks on the line attached to his ankle, until the morning sun had soared high enough to splash its warmth on his upturned face. His first realization on awaking had been that he had no longer to fear a beating up from that yaller bulldog of a nigger, Homer. No, he had surely and effectively subdued Homer. And he would just as surely and effectively fix anybody who sought to break the harmony of his peace of mind. He had the power within him to do it; he had, on more than one occasion, proved it.
Then he sat suddenly up, a faint sense of unsureness percolating into his soul, a9 there loomed before his vision a big colored woman with arms akimbo and feet planted wide, a woman whom he had reason to believe possessed an extra uncanny sense of “readin’ his min’.” And it had occurred to him that Jane-Ann would be, just about now peerin’ down street and wonderin’ fer why dat pup’s fitmedicine was not forthcomin’.
Forgotten was the world of freedom and scents and sounds, forgotten the throw-out line cast in the centre of the stream, forgotten his newly acquired wealth and all it promised to secure for him in that one maddening thought. “What’ll Jane-Ann do when I trail ’long home?”
I ENIX remembered, with a guilty start, that he had promised Jane-Ann to work overtime that week in order that she might, with the extra money so earned purchase a white Leghorn hat which she had set her heart on possessing. Not that he had intended doing it, just a promise, as it were, to temporarily bridge a little domestic abyss which a night out with the boys had occasioned. But JaneAnn had a way of remembering those little things and this indisputable fact was a fly in the ointment, a little rift in the lute of Len’s freedom and gladness.
Then suddenly his sordid thoughts took wing. The maple gad to which the throw-
out line was attached, had shivered j bent, sure indication of another j Down beside it on his knees spra' ¡ Lenix, bald pate touching the line, rol j eyes fastened on it.
“Come another pull an’ I yank him, '1
muttered. “Dat’ll make free; -I
smoke, what a whopper!”
He was pulling in the line now, t over hand, with the long steady drav the professional cat-fish taker he ■ “He’s fairly yankin’ de arms offin’ 1, he chuckled. “I bet dat fish weigh
Deftly he lifted the yellow, drip]. prize to a securer point up the gri bank, silently he surveyed its giga proportions, jubilantly he contempt, what the boys would all say when showed them this beauty.
Luck was sure enough with Lenix, been with him all day, would, he felt tain, continue with him.
But luck is a fickle mistress. Eve) Lenix was anticipating her fur favors, she was preparing to flaunt ! He was holding the big, slippery fish d with one foot, while he bent to extrait hook, held grimly between those tig locked jaws. Now, a cat-fish is a hard to handle, even to one accustomed handling them, as was Lenix. 1 possess a bulldog tenacity of jaw aí mean disposition. Along their mouths sundry string-like, whisker-like tuberances known as “feelers,” inno and inoffensive enough to contempi but deadly in their action on one ui tiated in their proper,use. Those hs less looking little whiskers are capabl biting deeply as a thorn in the fingers are unschooled in avoiding them, an may be his knowledge learned at the of pam, that made Lenix doubly car in the performing of his task. At rate he trusted too greatly to the strffl of the slender hook, and by pulling hard on )t broke it off short in the li mouth.
“Dar, now yo’se done it.” Lenix rowfully contemplated the loss )*jl spelt the cessation of his angling, th« the catfish which now, true to its ’j trariness of disposition, was gaspinj though in derision up into his face. ‘ two cents I’d take dis rock and bus’ wide open. I would so. Come, ’long yc on de string wif udder two. When I el yo’ ter night, I’ll sure slash yo’ 0 twice, jest fer breakin’ my only hook short; yes, sah.”
Lenix strung the fish on the chalk 1 with a sigh. Nothing more to do h was his thought. No use fishing witt a hook. Well, he was out for all ( Must find something to amuse him with ; what?
HE sat down on the bank, closing eyes, nursing his thin knees in arms. After a time he opened his f slowly, then as slowly his thick lips pa) in a smile—a gladsome, happy smile s as a naughty boy may smile when slt; new and sweet deviltry has occurred
Swiftly he unlimbered his long 1« and started to unlace his shoes. Hise were on the sun-kissed water. It 1 calling him, urging him to break the lt; by-law and the barriers of adultism 1 shift back to the old swimmin’ days boyhood.
Five minutes later Lenix stood u] that tree-scented bank of the river as f of clothing as his spirit was free trouble. A saucy chipmunk ran from roots of a tree to chirrup him a challe) and he watched it with a smile as
painted a line of brown and yellow across the grass. Then he sat down on the clayey ridge of river and allowed himself to slide into the warm water, soundlessly as a sun-basking crocodile.
Noiselessly and with the sure strokes of an adept swimmer he made his way out into mid-stream, now and again allowing his head to sink beneath the cooling water.
Once out in the middle of the river, however, he seemed to awaken to a sense of impending trouble. The black, dripping face suddenly lost its smile and boyish tranquility. Shoreward, with long crawling strokes swam Lenix. He had just remembered that he had left four whole dollars, in quarters, in his trouser’s pocket. “Somebody might jest snitch that money.”
He had reached the sloping floor of the river at a point where he could bottom it nicely, and had settled his feet on the sticky mud, when the alder-bushes on shore parted and a head and neck protruded themselves upon his privacy.
LENIX promptly dived and came up several yards out in the river. JaneAnn, the picture of righteous indignation, stood on the shore. She was holding up his trousers in her hand and the whites of the eyes fastened upon him shone ominously.
“Come in hyar,” she commanded.
“Yes, Jane-Ann.” Lenix trod water and put more distance between himself and his angry spouse.
“Len, is yo’ all cornin’? Ease if yo’ aint I aim ter keep yo’ out dar till dis ribber freeze solid ’nuff fer me ter walk out and snatch yer head from its trunk. Hear me?”
“Yes, Jane-Ann. I’se cornin’. Cornin' in right now.”
“Youse goin’ out fürder all time. Well, keep on goin’. Dar’s a nes’ o’ copperhead snakes on udder side. I don’ wish yo’ no better luck that ter get bit up by ’em.” Down Len’s black-cased spine ran a shiver as cold as an icicle.
“Snakes!” he shuddered, “Loramighty !” He was swimming in towards the waiting woman, swiftly. “Jane-Ann,” he said coaxingly. “Is yo’ mad wif me?”
“Mad,” Jane-Ann spat the word from her. “Mad aint no way ter qualify my feelin’s jest at dis time, nigger. I’se cold and cruel murderous, I is. If, when yo’ all land, an I gets froo’ feelin’ yo’ ober, dar’s enuf ob yo’ lef’ ter craivl hovie, I’se not goin’ ter finish what I hab in min’, dats all.”
She gave the trousers she held a twitch and several bright silver quarters chinked down at her feet. .She bent and picked them up. Laboriously she counted the money, four dollars.
“Len, whar yo’ getted dis money?” Lenix squirmed and his right eye twitched. It was a time when he must summon all his powers of diplomacy to the fore.
“What money, Jane-Ann? Oh dat money.” Len was sweating and feeling the qualms of the lost.
“Yes, dis hyar money. Dis hyar fo’ dollars in two bit pieces. War yo’ get it?”
Lenix had an inspiration. “Look yo’, Jane-Ann, I'se sorry yo’ fin’ dat money. I’se intendin’ af’er I deliber dem free catfish as I cotched fer Jedge McDool, to run long an’ buy yo’ dat Leghorn hat wif de ostrudge spume on it. I sure want to gib yo’ a ’sprise. Jane-Ann, by spendin’ dat fo’ dollars—I mean dat free-fifty, as de
Jedge gib me fer de fish-.”
“Len,” in spite of the note of menace,
there was something softened in JaneAnn’s tones. “Len, yo’ all mean ter say Jedge McDool ask yo’ ter come and cotch him some cat-fish, and gib yo’ dis fo dollars ter do it?”
“Free-fifty,” corrected Lenix. “Dat udder fo bits is what yo’ gib me dis mornin’. Yep, de Jedge he shorely did gib me dat money, Jane-Ann.”
“When yo’ see de Jedge, Len?”
“Met him dis mornin’ when I was goin’ af’er Orinoco’s med’eine.”
“You’se lyin’. Jedge, he wouldn’ be out dat early.”
“He was trouble wif toothache, so he say. Up all night walkin’ off de pain.” Jane-Ann stood a moment as though struggling with doubt. Then she shook
herself and transposed the money to one of her spacious pockets.
“Well,” she said slowly. “Under dem circumstances, I reckon I’ll let yo’ off dis time, Len. I wouldn’ do it fer nobody but Jedge McDool, min’ yo’ nigger! Now, I’se goin’ up a piece. Yo’ jes’ crawl outer dat ribber and dress right quick. We’ll go home past de millinery store and I’ll get dat Leghorn and bring it ’long. We’ll hab an early dinner and yo’ kin get a good start at cuttin staves dis af’ernoon. An’
“Yes, Jane-Ann.” Lenix was already climbing up the bank, the old timé gladness flooding back into his soul.
“I reckon, we’ll hab libber and onions fer dinner, so hurry ’long.”