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The Sale of Uncle Rastus by Will Nathaniel Harben


Aunt Milly's cabin was brightly illuminated. Crude tallow dips in the necks of cracked jugs and bottles spangled a dark clothless table, a slanting heap of blazing logs filled the wide rock-and-mud chimney, and a bonfire of pine knots at the “wash-place” near the door outside threw a red light far down the road which led past a row of cabins to the residence of Aunt Milly's owner, Mr. Herbert Putnam.

The season's crop of corn had been hauled up from the fields to the cribs. Frost had come; persimmons were ripe, and Aunt Milly was going to give the first opossum supper of the fall. Her two boys, Len and Caesar, had caught two fat opossums the night before, and she had dressed the game and left it in a couple of pans out on the roof—“ter let de fros' bite de wil' taste out'n it en tender it up 'fo 'bilin' en bakin'.” She had given this explanation to her husband, Uncle Rastus, who had been irritated by her rising two or three times in the night “ter see ef dem cats wuzn't atter dat meat.”

Uncle Rastus was sick; he had taken a severe cold, which had settled on his lungs and given him a cough. Hearing the negroes singing as they came through the fields from the neighboring plantations, he left his bed in the lean-to shed and hobbled slowly into the glare of candlelight. He sniffed the aroma of coffee and baked meat and intently surveyed the preparation his wife had made.

“I heer um—dat Nelse's tenor en Montague's bass; dey all comin'. I never heer sech er racket!” As he spoke he put a quilt down on the floor in the chimney-corner and lay down and pushed out his long bare feet to the fire.

“I reckon I got my heerin',” she replied, eyeing him reprovingly. “Look a-heer, Rastus, who seh you might git up? You know you gwine hat er wuss achin' dan ever in yo' ches' ef you lie afar over dem cracks des atter you got outin dat warm bed.”

“Lemme 'lone,” he said, in an offhand tone; “you reckon I ain't gwine be at yo' 'possum supper, en mebby it de las' night on dis yer plantation—huh?”

His words evoked no reply, for the guests were now near the door, and she had advanced to meet them. Nelse and Montague, two tall, lank negroes, slouched in and dropped their hats on the floor. They were followed by Aunt Winnie and her husband and a crowd of negroes of all ages and sizes. As the guests filed in at the door and huddled round the fire and Rastus's perpendicular feet, each put a silver quarter into a bowl on the end of the table.

“I don't 'grudge you mine, Aunt Milly,” said Aunt Winnie, feelingly. “My goodness, you is hat ernough trouble, wid yo' marster bein' so po' en Unc' Rastus so sickly en y'all gwine be put up on de auction-block ter-morrer en no idee whar you gwine nex'. How much y' reckin you gwine ter fetch, Aunt Milly?”

For reply Aunt Milly simply shrugged her fat shoulders as she went round among her guests and took their bonnets and shawls, which she piled promiscuously on a chest in the corner.

“She's wuff all she'll bring, I boun' yer,” said Nelse, who was standing almost astride of Rastus's head. “As for me, Aunt Milly, I'd er sight rusher be put up on de auction- block at de court-house den ter be sol' in er slave-mart. Dey hat me on sale in New Orleans fur two weeks han' runnin', settin' bolt up in er long room wid er passel er niggers dey call Cre-owls, en people constant er-lookin' at me en axin' my price. Dey feed you on de fat er de lan' en keep you dressed up, but you never know is yer gwine ter be er ditch-digger ur somebody s ca'ge-driver. On de block it soon over en you know whar you gwine, en ef er nigger is sharp he kin manage er li'l en git on de good side er some white man he likes.”

“Marse Geo'ge Putnam'll buy y'all, you know he will,” remarked Aunt Winnie to Rastus, who had sat up on his quilt and been listening eagerly to Nelse. “He'll be on'y too glad er de chance ter spite Marse Herbert en rake in some mo' uv his paw's old slaves. He already bought up all de lan' 'cep' de li'l patch Marse Herbert's house stan' on, en now de house en dis yer fambly er niggers is all dat is lef' fer 'im ter want. My white folks seh ten yeer ergo dat Marse Geo'ge never will res' satisfied till his po' brother is flat on his back destitute. Seem lak he in his glory when he hear dat suppen o' Marse Herbert's is up fer sale, so he kin buy it in. I hadn't never seed two sech brothers; dey hain't 'change one word in ten yeer; en all kase ole Marse Putnam lef' Marse Herbert de ol' home place en want 'im ter hol' on ter it.”

Uncle Rastus looked up suddenly. His face was full of angles, and his dark eyes flashed in the firelight. “I hope he won't buy me,” he grunted; “ef I cayn't stay wid Marse Herbert, de younges' en po'est er ol' marster's chillun, I want ter go clean off 'mongst strangers. Dis me er-talkin'!”

The pathos of this remark struck most of the listeners; but Montague, who, for reasons of his own, disliked old Rastus, was unmoved by it. “You needn't trouble 'bout whar you gwine,” he said, with contemptuous emphasis on the “you,” and he pushed a little black girl to one side that he might watch the effect of his words on Rastus. “De won't be any big scramblin' atter you; who want ter buy er nigger des ter git ter bury 'im dese hard times?”

“Be ershamed, Montague,” remonstrated Aunt Winnie; “be ershamed er yo'se'f!”

“He ain't got no raisin'!” blurted out Aunt Milly. “Unc' Rastus ain't gwine ter listen ter dat black fool.”

“I des know what white folks seh, dat's all,” insinuated Montague, sullenly. “Marse Herbert come over ter see my marster ter-day, en I heerd um talkin' in de stable-yard. Marse Herbert 'low he'd been countin' on payin' off his pressin' debt wid whut dis fambly er niggers would fetch, en 'd laid his plans ter hol' on ter his house en go West en mek money ter pay de intrust en lif' de mortgage, but des den Unc' Rastus, de mos' valuables' one, tuk sick, en now Aunt Milly an' de chillun won't fetch ernough ter do much good.”

This announcement produced an impression. Aunt Milly was plainly too much astonished even to protest against the brutality of the revelation. Rastus took a fresh hold on his thin knees with his arms, coughed deeply and painfully, and looked Montague straight in the eyes.

“Is you tellin' de trufe?” he asked. “Is you?”

“I hadn't no reason to tell you er lie, Unc' Rastus.”

From that moment Montague had the contempt of the whole room. Aunt Milly was evidently recompensed by this, for she simply looked into the sympathetic faces around her and made no sound. Rastus lay back on his quilt silently, and languidly thrust his feet back to the fire.

Aunt Milly's voice sounded cold and equivocal in her effort to smother her emotions when she said, “Well, come on, y'all, an' git yo' 'possum an' biscuit 'fo' dey git co'.” The last words of her invitation were drowned in the scrambling and shuffling of feet as the crowd surged toward the table. A whole opossum embedded in a great heap of fried sweet potatoes was placed by Len and Casar on each end of the long table, and Aunt Milly followed them with a great bucket of coffee and pans of smoking biscuits.

They were all seated and had begun the feast, when, to their astonishment, Rastus rose and staggered to a vacant place at the end of the table.

“Whar my 'possum, Aunt Milly?” he demanded, with pretended pique. “On my soul, I believe you tryin' ter let' me out.”

“Go back ter yo' bed, Rastus,” she scolded, gently. “What kin got in you? you ain't eat nothin' in er mont' 'cep' er li'l soup en gravy, en now you want ter founder yo'se'f on 'possum meat.”

He shoved his plate impatiently toward her. “Gimme some er dem taters en dat 'possum. You heer me?”

“You too sick, Rastus,” protested Aunt Milly, with maternal persuasiveness. “Go lie down, en I'll fix you some er yo' good soup.”

“I know I wuz sick,” he replied; “but I want ter tell y'all, I ain't now; I'm cuored well en soun'.” As he spoke these words, accompanied by a heroic attempt to hold himself erect in his chair, Aunt Milly recalled the strange look of desperate determination that had possessed his face when Montague had finished speaking, and she kept silent. Both sides of the long table were curiously looking at the invalid. “I'm er li'l weak yit, but I ain't sick,” he went on, bracing himself with a thin hand on each side of the table. “You know dat conjure doctor on de river plantation? Well, he come by here dis mawnin' 'fo' day, he did—des ez I wuz gittin' up ter git er armful er firewood, en—”

“Why, you know dat ain't so, Unc' Rastus,” broke in Aunt Milly, “kase I got up fus' dis mawnin', en you wuz soun' ersleep.”

“'Twuz long 'to' you got up, Aunt Milly,” added the old man, glibly, as he warmed up to his fiction. “Well, dat conjure doctor rode by de do' on er white hoss, he did, en seh to me, 'Rastus, you sick, en you mus' git well 'fo' yo' marster puts you up for sale, so you kin bring what you is wuff ter he'p him out'n his scrape.' En he up en ax me has I my rabbitfoot erbout me, en I tuk it out'n my weskit pocket, en he seh, 'Well, put it in de hot ashes in de back er de chimbly tell you hear er dog bark, en den tek it out en wash it clean in spring-water, en den keep it by you night en day,' en when I done ez he tol' me I got well.”

A chorus of wondering ejaculations rose from the superstitious listeners, and for a moment opossum meat and potatoes were forgotten. Aunt Milly looked at her husband tenderly. “Dat nigger would die fer Marse Herbert,” she thought. “He dat sick now he cayn't hol' his haid up; de sight er dat 'possum meat is gaggin' 'im, but he'll kill me ef I let on.”

“I don't want yo' al' 'possum meat,” said Rastus, rising and moving back to the fire. “I'm gwine ter lie down an' git rested up fer ter-morrer. Ef dey'll let me, I'll dance er breakdown on dat auction-block en turn one er my han'-springs.”

“He certny is cuored,” said Aunt Winnie, gladly. “Dese conjure doctors beat de ol' sort all ter pieces.”

The supper over, Aunt Milly slowly counted out her earnings and put them away; the table was moved back against the wall; Nelse got out his bones and began to play, and Len and Caesar danced jigs till they sank to the floor in exhaustion. After this, plantation songs were sung, ghost-stories were told, and it was late when they went back to their homes.

The following day was a fine one. The air was bracing, and the sun shone brightly. The autumnal foliage had never appeared more beautiful; every color in nature seemed lavished on the hills near by, and the mountains, twenty miles away, blue as the skies in spring and summer, had faded into a beautiful pink.

The court-house and auction-block were in a village two miles from the plantations of the two Putnam brothers. Uncle Rastus and his family were sent over in the wagon of Herbert Putnam's overseer, and Lawyer Sill came by in his buggy and drove Herbert to the sale.

“I thought I would stay away and let you attend to it for me,” said Herbert Putnam; “but my daughter thinks I ought to go. Brother George will be there to bid them in. He wouldn't miss the opportunity to humiliate me again for anything.”

“You ought to be on hand,” replied Sill, as the other got into the buggy. “Your negroes worship you, and would feel hurt if you were not present. Your brother has acted very badly, and has made himself unpopular by it.”

“It was my father's wish that I hold the home place, but George never could forgive me for it. If he had advanced money to me, as he has to total strangers, I should have paid out all right. He has a better head for business than I have.”

A hundred wagons, buggies, and carriages were scattered over the court-house common, the hitching-racks were hidden by mules and horses, and a considerable crowd of people, white and black, were clustered around the auction-block to the right of the court-house door, near the massive log jail. In the edge of the crowd an old darky was selling “groundpeas,” and his white-headed wife was threading her way through the crowd, retailing hot gingerbread from a basket and fresh cider from a capacious jug with a corncob stopper. In some of the carriages elegantly dressed ladies sat; young men, the gallants among the gentry of the county, with broad hats, and trousers in their bootlegs, conversed with them from the backs of restive mettlesome horses.

Colonel George Putnam sat in his carriage with his wife and son, but when his brother drove up with Lawyer Sill, he alighted and approached his own lawyer, who was talking with a group of planters.

“Burton,” said he, in a low tone, “remember, you are to bid for me; I don't want to be conspicuous, but I will have those negroes. I don't want any of my father's estate to go into the hands of strangers.”

“All right,” replied Burton; “we won't have much trouble. Old man Staley has thrown out some intimation that he intends to do some bidding, but he's afraid of his shadow, and when he sees you are in the fight he'll draw in his horns.”

“I don't think so. Staley is no friend of mine, and will try to run the price up on me out of spite. I looked over them a while ago as they came up,” the colonel went on, glancing at the wagon in which Uncle Rastus and his wife and sons were seated. “They all seem in pretty fair condition except Rastus. He says he has had a little spell of fever, but that he is all right now.”

“He is thin, but as sound as a dollar,” said Burton, lightly. “He jumped out of the wagon just now as nimbly as a kitten and unhitched the mules in a hurry. I told him I heard he had been sick, and he laughed and said he could do more work than ten ordinary darkies.”

“Well, keep your eye on Staley. My brother has wasted everything my father left him, and I owe it to our name to retain as many of our old slaves as I can. You told me you would find out the amount of the mortgage on the place.”

“McPherson lent him five thousand on it.”

“And he expects to make that out West and keep the interest paid! He'll never do it in the world.”

Burton glanced across the crowd at the seedy-looking man with the pale face and iron-gray hair, and his reply was tinged with feeling:

“You're purty hard on 'im, colonel; it's none o' my business, but he's a powerful good fellow. Seems to me, as he was the only brother you have, you might have helped him a little.”

The planter's eye fell, and an angry flush came into his dark face. “You don't know anything about it, Burton,” said he, quickly. “I acknowledge we had some words about the will, but he set afloat the rumors about my treatment of him when I was a candidate for the legislature, and it was through him that I was beaten.”

Burton wished to change the subject. “I see the auctioneer and the negroes going to the block,” he said. “Look at old Rastus; he prances around like a two-year-old colt. I reckon you can fatten him up; a little sickness does 'em good sometimes.”

The crowd drew closer round the platform upon which the red-faced auctioneer had sprung and was placing chairs for Rastus and his family. All of them except Rastus himself seemed awed by the solemnity of the occasion. “Who gwine buy me?” he laughed, clapping his hands and rubbing them together. “I been er li'l sick, but I'm pickin' up now en kin hol' my own wid any nigger in dis county. Who want me? Speak up quick.”

“Dry up,” laughed the auctioneer, and he playfully jerked off the old man's hat and laid it in the latter's lap. “Don't you know ernough not to come 'fo' company with yore hat on? Who's gain' to sell this batch of niggers, you or me? Ef you are, I'll git down and bid on you. I want somebody to look after my thoroughbreds.”

This sally evoked a wave of laughter from the crowd, and Rastus joined in with as much enjoyment as if he had caused it. Herbert Putnam drew Sill aside.

“Rastus is shamming,” he whispered; “he is as sick as he can be right now. He's doing it in order to bring a better price, to help me out. Dr. Wilson said the other day that he might live to be an old man, but that he'd never be able to work any more.”

“Good gracious!” ejaculated Sill; “who ever heard the like? He's a hero.”

Herbert Putnam's eyes glistened and his voice was unsteady as he spoke. “I'd give my right arm rather than part with him. If I were able, he and his should be free to-day.”

The auctioneer began to gesticulate and shout: “Six hundred has been bid on Rastus, by Mr. Burton over thar, to start the game. Only six hundred for one of the best buck negroes in the county. Seven hundred! That's right, Mr. Staley; he's the very man you want. Seven hundred; eight do I hear it? Thank you; Mr. Burton don't intend to take a back seat. All right; nine hundred! Nine-fifty do I hear it, Mr. Burton? Nine- fifty it is. Mr. Staley has got a thousand ready for him; a thousand has been bid; anybody else in the fight? Old Rastus is thin, but he could throw a bull a rod by the tail. One thousand only on a two-thousand-dollar negro. Do I hear more?”

George Putnam's face darkened angrily as he watched the excited features of old man Staley. He drew Burton's ear down to his lips: “Bid twelve hundred, and knock him out and be done with it,” he whispered; “it will scare him to death.”

“Twelve hundred,” said Burton, without a change of countenance, and silence fell on the chattering, speculating crowd; even the voluble auctioneer showed surprise by not at once echoing the bid. Old Rastus took advantage of the pause; he sprang up and clapped his hands and knocked his heels together. “I ain't no thousand-dollar nigger,” he cried. “I b'longs ter Marse Herbert Putnam, I does; de ain't no cheap nigger on dis yer block.”

“Twelve hundred dollars!” repeated the auctioneer, impressively, and there was something vaguely respectful in the way he pushed Rastus back into his chair. “Twelve hundred! Mr. Staley, don't back out; you need 'im wuss than anybody else. Is it twelve- twenty-five?”

Staley hesitated; his eyes fell before the concentrated stare of the silent crowd, and then he nodded. A murmur passed through the assembly, and Colonel Putnam grew white with anger. “Some one has put him up to this,” he said in a low tone to his agent. “Make it thirteen hundred. And the next instant the auctioneer was flaunting the bid in the face of old Staley.

Herbert Putnam, unnoticed by any one, elbowed his way through the crowd to his brother and touched him on the arm. Their eyes met. “Pardon me,” said Herbert, “but I must speak to you.”

And George Putnam was drawn beyond the outskirts of the crowd. “I cannot keep quiet and see you cheated,” faltered Herbert, with his eyes averted. “A long time ago, when you and I were boys, you stood up for me, and I cannot forget that we are brothers. Don't bid any more on Rastus; he is shamming; he is as sick as he can be, and is only pretending to be well to bring a high price.”

The two men gazed into each other's eyes. George Putnam was quivering all over, and his face was softening. Impulsively he put out his hand, as if to apologize for his lack of words. “Let's not be enemies any longer,” went on Herbert, as he pressed the extended hand. “I am sick and tired of this estrangement. I am going away, and I may never come back. I can't keep up the old place as father thought I would, and you are welcome to it. Take it and care for it; mother's and father's graves are on it.”

George Putnam's face was working; he strove to reply, but his voice clogged. He looked toward his son and wife in his carriage, and then back into his brother's face. “God forgive me, Herb,” he said; “I've treated you like a dog. Old Rastus has been truer to you than your own brother. You shall not give up the old place; you must keep it. Wait!” And with those words he hurried to the platform.

The auctioneer had been proclaiming Staley's reckless bid of thirteen-twenty-five, and the crowd was eagerly taking in the unusual sight of the two Putnam brothers in close conversation. Colonel Putnam reached the platform and signed the auctioneer to be quiet. Standing on the lower step, he was in the view of all.

“I want Rastus, and I am going to have him, “ he said to the upturned faces. “I want him to give him back to my brother, who has been forced by my neglect to offer him for sale. Twenty thousand dollars is my bid—and Rastus is worth every cent of it.”

No one spoke as Colonel Putnam stepped back into the crowd. Old Rastus seemed the only one to thoroughly grasp the situation “Bress de Lawd!” he exclaimed, and he slapped Aunt Milly on the back. “Dem boys done made up, en I fotch twenty thousand dollars! Whooee!”

“Twenty thousand dollars,” said the auctioneer, awkwardly. “Twenty thousand—do I hear—and sold to Colonel Putnam. I reckon the' ain't no use puttin' up the others.”

There was great activity in the crowd. Everybody was trying to see the two brothers as they went arm in arm to Colonel Putnam's carriage, and a moment later, when the vehicle with four occupants turned into the road leading toward George Putnam's plantation, a unanimous cheer rose from the crowd.


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