Cahoots by Paul Laurence Dunbar
In the centre of the quaint old Virginia grave-yard stood two
monuments side by sidetwo plain granite shafts exactly alike. On one
was inscribed the name Robert Vaughan Fairfax and the year 1864. On the
other was the simple and perplexing inscription, Cahoots. Nothing
The place had been the orchard of one of the ante-bellum mansions
before the dead that were brought back from the terrible field of
Malvern Hill and laid there had given it a start as a cemetery. Many
familiar names were chiselled on the granite head-stones, and anyone
conversant with Virginia genealogy would have known them to belong to
some of the best families of the Old Dominion. But Cahoots,who or
what was he?
My interest, not to say curiosity, was aroused. There must be a
whole story in those two shafts with their simple inscriptions, a
life-drama or perhaps a tragedy. And who was more likely to know it
than the postmaster of the quaint little old town. Just after the war,
as if tired with its exertions to repel the invader, the old place had
fallen asleep and was still drowsing.
I left the cemeteryif such it could be calledand wended my way
up the main street to the ancient building which did duty as
post-office. The man in charge, a grizzled old fellow with an empty
sleeve, sat behind a small screen. He looked up as I entered and put
out his hand toward the mailboxes, waiting for me to mention my name.
But instead I said: I am not expecting any mail. I only wanted to ask
a few questions.
Well, sir, what can I do for you? he asked with some interest.
I've just been up there walking through the cemetery, I returned,
and I am anxious to know the story, if there be one, of two monuments
which I saw there.
You mean Fairfax and Cahoots.
You're a stranger about here, of course.
Yes, I said again, and so there is a story?
There is a story and I'll tell it to you. Come in and sit down. He
opened a wire door into his little cage, and I seated myself on a stool
and gave my attention to him.
It's just such a story, he began, as you can hear in any of the
Southern Stateswherever there were good masters and faithful slaves.
This particular tale is a part of our county history, and there ain't
one of the old residents but could tell it to you word for word and
fact for fact. In the days before our misunderstanding with the North,
the Fairfaxes were the leading people in this section. By leading, I
mean not only the wealthiest, not only the biggest land-owners, but
that their name counted for more in social circles and political
councils than any other hereabout. It is natural to expect that such a
family should wish to preserve its own name down a direct line. So it
was a source of great grief to old Fairfax that his first three
children were girls, pretty, healthy, plump enough little things, but
girls for all that, and consequently a disappointment to their father's
pride of family. When the fourth child came and it proved to be a boy,
the Fairfax plantation couldn't hold the Fairfax joy and it flowed out
and mellowed the whole county.
They do say that Fairfax Fairfax was in one of his further tobacco
fields when the good news was brought to him, and that after giving
orders that all the darkies should knock off work and take a holiday,
in his haste and excitement he jumped down from his horse and ran all
the way to the house. I give the story only for what it is worth. But
if it is true, it is the first case of a man of that name and family
forgetting himself in an emergency.
Well, of course, the advent of a young male Fairfax would under any
circumstances have proven a great event, although it was afterwards
duplicated, but there would have been no story to tell, there would
have been no 'Cahoots,' if by some fortuitous circumstance one of the
slave women had not happened to bring into the world that day and
almost at the same time that her mistress was introducing young Vaughan
Fairfax to the light, a little black pickaninny of her own. Well, if
you're a Southern man, and I take it that you are, you know that
nothing ever happens in the quarters that the big house doesn't know.
So the news was soon at the white father's ears and nothing would do
him but that the black baby must be brought to the house and be
introduced to the white one. The little black fellow came in all rolled
in his bundle of shawls and was laid for a few minutes beside his
little lord and master. Side by side they lay blinking at the light
equally strange to both, and then the master took the black child's
hand and put it in that of the white's. With the convulsive gesture
common to babyhood the little hands clutched in a feeble grasp.
'Dah now,' old Doshy saidshe was the nurse that had brought the
pickaninny up'dey done tol' each othah howdy.'
'Told each other howdy nothing,' said old Fairfax solemnly, 'they
have made a silent compact of eternal friendship, and I propose to
ratify it right here.'
He was a religious man, and so there with all the darkies clustered
around in superstitious awe, and with the white face of his wife
looking at him from among the pillows, he knelt and offered a prayer,
and asked a blessing upon the two children just come into the world.
And through it all those diminutive specimens of humanity lay there
blinking with their hands still clasped.
Well, they named the white child Robert Vaughan, and they began
calling the little darky Ben, until an incident in later life gave him
the name that clung to him till the last, and which the Fairfaxes have
had chiseled on his tomb-stone.
The incident occurred when the two boys were about five years old.
They were as thick as thieves, and two greater scamps and greater
cronies never tramped together over a Virginia plantation. In the
matter of deviltry they were remarkably precocious, and it was really
wonderful what an amount of mischief those two could do. As was
natural, the white boy planned the deeds, and the black one was his
willing coadjutor in carrying them out.
Meanwhile, the proud father was smilingly indulgent to their
pranks, but even with him the climax was reached when one of his fine
young hounds was nearly driven into fits by the clatter of a tin can
tied to its tail. Then the two culprits were summoned to appear before
the paternal court of inquiry.
They came hand in hand, and with no great show of fear or
embarrassment. They had gotten off so many times before that they were
perfectly confident of their power in this case to cajole the judge.
But to their surprise he was all sternness and severity.
'Now look here,' he said, after expatiating on the cruel treatment
which the dog had received. 'I want to know which one of you tied the
can to Spot's tail?'
Robert Vaughan looked at Ben, and Ben looked back at him. Silence
there, and nothing more.
'Do you hear my question?' old Fairfax asked with rising voice.
Robert Vaughan looked straight ahead of him, and Ben dug his big
toe into the sand at the foot of the veranda, but neither answered.
'Robert Vaughan Fairfax,' said his father, 'who played that trick
on Spot? Answer me, do you hear?'
The Fairfax heir seemed suddenly to have grown deaf and dumb, and
the father turned to the black boy. His voice took on the tone of
command which he had hardly used to his son. 'Who played that trick on
Spot? Answer me, Ben.'
The little darky dug harder and harder into the sand, and flashed a
furtive glance from under his brows at his fellow-conspirator. Then he
drawled out, 'I done it.'
'You didn't,' came back the instant retort from his young master,
'I did it myself.'
'I done it,' repeated Ben, and 'You didn't,' reiterated his young
The father sat and looked on at the dispute, and his mouth twitched
suspiciously, but he spoke up sternly. 'Well, if I can't get the truth
out of you this way, I'll try some other plan. Mandy,' he hailed a
servant, 'put these boys on a diet of bread and water until they are
ready to answer my questions truthfully.'
The culprits were led away to their punishment. Of course it would
have just been meat to Mandy to have stolen something to the
youngsters, but her master kept such a close eye upon her that she
couldn't, and when brought back at the end of three hours, their fare
had left the prisoners rather hungry. But they had evidently disputed
the matter between themselves, and from the cloud on their faces when
they reappeared before their stern judge, it was still unsettled.
To the repetition of the question, Vaughan answered again, 'I did
it,' and then his father tried Ben again.
After several efforts, and an imploring glance at his boy master,
the little black stammered out:
'Well, I reckonI reckon, Mas,' me an' Mas' Vaughan, we done it in
Old Fairfax Fairfax had a keen sense of humour, and as he looked
down on the strangely old young darky and took in his answer, the
circumstance became too much for his gravity, and his relaxing laugh
sent the culprits rolling and tumbling in the sand in an ectasy of
relief from the strained situation.
'CahootsI reckon it was Cahoots,' the judge said. 'You ought to
be named that, you little black rascal!' Well, the story got around,
and so it was, and from that day forth the black boy was 'Cahoots.'
Cahoots, whether on the plantation, at home, in the halls of the
Northern College, where he accompanied his young master, or in the
tragic moments of the great war-drama played out on the field of
As they were in childhood, so, inseparable through youth and young
manhood, Robert Fairfax and Cahoots grew up. They were together in
everything, and when the call came that summoned the young Virginian
from his college to fight for the banner of his State, Cahoots was the
one who changed from the ease of a gentleman's valet to the hardship of
a soldier's body-servant.
The last words Fairfax Fairfax said as his son cantered away in his
gray suit were addressed to Cahoots: 'Take good care of your Mas'
Vaughan, Cahoots, and don't come back without him.'
'I won't, Mastah,' Cahoots flung back and galloped after his
Well, the war brought hard times both for master and man, and there
were no flowery beds of ease even for the officers who wore the gray.
Robert Fairfax took the fortunes of the conflict like a man and a
Virginia gentleman, and with him Cahoots.
It was at Malvern Hill that the young Confederate led his troops
into battle, and all day long the booming of the cannon and the crash
of musketry rising above the cries of the wounded and dying came to the
ears of the slave waiting in his tent for his master's return. Then in
the afternoon a scattered fragment came straggling back into the camp.
Cahoots went out to meet them. The firing still went on.
'Whah's Mas' Bob?' his voice pierced through the cannon's thunder.
'He fell at the front, early in the battle.'
'Whah's his body den, ef he fell?'
'We didn't have time to look for dead bodies in that murderous
fire. It was all we could do to get our living bodies away.'
'But I promised not to go back without him.' It was a wail of
anguish from the slave.
'Well, you'll have to.'
'I won't. Whah did he fall?'
Someone sketched briefly the approximate locality of Robert
Fairfax's resting place, and on the final word Cahoots tore away.
The merciless shot of the Federals was still raking the field. But
amid it all an old prairie schooner, gotten from God knows where,
started out from the dismantled camp across the field. 'Some fool going
to his death,' said one of the gray soldiers.
A ragged, tattered remnant of the wagon came back. The horses were
bleeding and staggering in their steps. The very harness was cut by the
balls that had grazed it. But with a light in his eyes and the look of
a hero, Cahoots leaped from the tattered vehicle and began dragging out
the body of his master.
He had found him far to the front in an abandoned position and
brought him back over the field of the dead.
'How did you do it?' They asked him.
'I jes' had to do it,' he said. 'I promised not to go home widout
him, and I didn't keer ef I did git killed. I wanted to die ef I
couldn't find Mas' Bob's body.'
He carried the body home, and mourned at the burial, and a year
later came back to the regiment with the son who had come after Robert,
and was now just of fighting age. He went all through this campaign,
and when the war was over, the two struck away into the mountains. They
came back after a while, neither one having taken the oath of
allegiance, and if there were any rebels Cahoots was as great a one to
the day of his death as his master. That tomb-stone, you see it looks
old, was placed there at the old master's request when his dead son
came home from Malvern Hill, for he said when Cahoots went to the other
side they must not be separated; that accounts for its look of age, but
it was not until last year that we laid CahootsCahoots still though
an old manbeside his master. And many a man that had owned his
people, and many another that had fought to continue that ownership,
dropped a tear on his grave.