IT was the bluest Monday the Rev. John Durham ever remembered in his ministry. A long drought had parched the corn into twisted and stunted little stalks that looked as though they had been burnt in a prairie fire. The fly had destroyed the wheat crop and the cotton was dying in the blistering sun of August, and a blight worse than drought, or flood, or pestilence, brooded over the stricken land, flinging the shadow of its Black Death over every home. The tax gatherer of the new "republican form of government," recently established in North Carolina, now demanded his pound of flesh.
The Sunday before had been a peculiarly hard one for the Preacher. He had tried by the sheer power of personal sympathy to lift the despairing people out of their gloom and make strong their faith in God. In his morning sermon he had torn his heart open and given them its red blood to drink. At the night service he could not rally from the nerve tension of the morning. He felt that he had pitiably failed. The whole day seemed failure black and hopeless.
All day long the sorrowful stories of ruin and loss of homes were poured into his ear.
The Sheriff had advertised for sale for taxes two thousand three hundred
and twenty homes in Campbell county. The land under such conditions had no
It was only a formality for the auctioneer to cry it and knock it down for the amount of the tax bill.
As he arose from bed with the burden of all this hopeless misery crushing his soul, a sense of utter exhaustion and loneliness came over him.
"My love, I must go back to bed and try to sleep. I lay awake last night until two o'clock. I can't eat anything," he said to his wife as she announced breakfast.
"John, dear, don't give up like that."
"Can't help it."
"But you must. Come, here is something that will tone you up. I found this note under the front door this morning."
"What is it?"
"A notice from some of your admirers that you must leave this county in forty-eight hours or take the consequences."
He looked at this anonymous letter and smiled.
"Not such a failure after all, am I?" he mused.
"I thought that would help, you," she laughed.
"Yes, I can eat breakfast on the strength of that."
He spread this letter out beside his plate, and read and reread it as he ate while his eyes flashed with a strange half humourous light.
"Really, that's fine, isn't it?" "You sower of sedition and rebellion, hypocrite and false prophet. The day has come to clean this county of treason and traitors. If you dare to urge the people to further resistance to authority, there will be one traitor less in this county."
"That sounds like the voice of a Daniel come to judgment, don't it?"
"I think Ezra Perkins might know something about it."
"I am sure of it."
"Well, I'm duly grateful, it's done for you what your wife couldn't do, cheered you up this morning!"
"That is so, isn't it? It takes a violent poison sometimes to stimulate the heart's action."
"Now if you will work the garden for me, where I've been watering it the past month, you will be yourself by dinner time."
"I will. That's about all we've got to eat. I've had so salary in two months, and I've no prospects for the next two months."
He was at work in the garden when Charlie Gaston suddenly ran through the gate toward him. His face was red, his eyes streaming with tears, and his breath coming in gasps.
"Doctor, they've killed Nelse! Mama says please come down to our house as quick as you can."
"Is he dead, Charlie?"
"He's most dead. I found him down in the woods lying in a gully, one leg is broken, there's a big gash over his eye, his back is beat to a jelly, and one of his arms is broken. We put him in the wagon, and hauled him to the house. I'm afraid he's dead now. Oh me!" The boy broke down and choked with sobs.
"Run, Charlie, for the doctor, and I'll be there in a minute."
The boy flew through the gate to the doctor's house.
When the Preacher reached Mrs. Gaston's, Aunt Eve was wiping the blood from Nelse's mouth.
"De Lawd hab mussy! My po' ole man's done kilt."
"Who could have done this, Eve?"
"Dem Union Leaguers. Day say day wuz gwine ter kill him fur not jinin' 'em, en fur tryin' ter vote ergin 'em."
"I've been afraid of it," sighed the Preacher as he felt Nelse's pulse.
"Yassir, en now day's done hit. My po' ole man. I wish I'd a been better ter 'im. Lawd Jesus, help me now!"
Eve knelt by the bed and laid her face against Nelse's while the tears rained down her black face.
"Aunt Eve, it may not be so bad," said the Preacher hopefully. "His pulse is getting stronger. He has an iron constitution. I believe he will pull through, if there are no internal injuries."
"Praise God! ef he do git well, I tell yer now, Marse John, I fling er spell on dem niggers bout dis!"
"I am afraid you can do nothing with them. The courts are all in the hands of these scoundrels, and the Governor of the state is at the head of the Leagues."
"I doan want no cotes, Marse John, I'se cote ennuf. I kin cunjure dem niggers widout any cote."
The doctor pronounced his injuries dangerous but not necessarily fatal. Charlie and Dick watched with Eve that night until nearly midnight. Nelse opened his eyes, and saw the eager face of the boy, his eyes yet red from crying.
"I aint dead, honey!" he moaned.
"Oh! Nelse, I'm so glad!"
"Doan you believe I gwine die! I gwine ter git eben wid dem niggers 'fore I leab dis worl'."
Nelse spoke feebly, but there was a way about his saying it that boded no good to his enemies, and Eve was silent. As Nelse improved, Eve's wrath steadily rose.
The next day she met in the street one of the negroes who had threatened Nelse.
"How's Mistah Gaston dis mawnin 'M'am?" he asked.
Without a word of warning she sprang on him like a tigress, bore him to
the ground, grasped him by the throat and pounded his head against a stone.
She would have
choked him to death, had not a man who was passing come to the rescue.
"Lemme lone, man, I'se doin' de wuk er God!"
"You're committing murder, woman."
When the negro got up he jumped the fence and tore down through a corn field, as though pursued by a hundred devils, now and then glancing over his shoulder to see if Eve were after him.
The Preacher tried in vain to bring the perpetrators of this outrage on Nelse to justice. He identified six of them positively. They were arrested, and when put on trial immediately discharged by the judge who was himself a member of the League that had ordered Nelse whipped.
* * * * * *
Tom Camp's daughter was now in her sixteenth year and as plump and winsome a lassie, her Scotch mother declared, as the Lord ever made. She was engaged to be married to Hose Norman, a gallant poor white from the high hill country at the foot of the mountains. Hose came to see her every Sunday riding a black mule, gaily trapped out in martingales with red rings, double girths to his saddle and a flaming red tassel tied on each side of the bridle. Tom was not altogether pleased with his future son-in-law. He was too wild, went to too many frolics, danced too much, drank too much whiskey and was too handy with a revolver.
"Annie, child, you'd better think twice before you step off with that young buck," Tom gravely warned his daughter as he stroked her fair hair one Sunday morning while she waited for Hose to escort her to church.
"I have thought a hundred times, Paw, but what's the use. I love him.
He can just twist me 'round his little finger. I've got to have him."
"Tom Camp, you don't want to forget you were not a saint when I stood up with you one day," cried his wife with a twinkle in her eye.
"That's a fact, ole woman," grinned Tom.
"You never give me a day's trouble after I got hold of you. Sometimes the wildest colts make the safest horses"
"Yes, that's so. It's owing to who has the breaking of 'em," thoughtfully answered Tom.
"I like Hose. He's full of fun, but he'll settle down and make her a good husband."
The girl slipped close to her mother and squeezed her hand.
"Do you love him much, child?" asked her father.
"Well enough to live and scrub and work for him and to die for him, I reckon."
"All right, that settles it, you're too many for me, you and Hose and your Maw. Get ready for it quick. We'll have the weddin' Wednesday night. This home is goin' to be sold Thursday for taxes and it will be our last night under our own roof. We'll make the best of it."
It was so fixed. On Wednesday night Hose came down from the foothills with three kindred spirits, and an old fiddler to make the music. He wanted to have a dance and plenty of liquor fresh from the mountain-dew district. But Tom put his foot down on it.
"No dancin' in my house, Hose, and no licker," said Tom with emphasis. "I'm a deacon in the Baptist church. I used to be young and as good lookin' as you, my boy, but I've done with them things. You're goin' to take my little gal now. I want you to quit your foolishness be a man."
"I will, Tom, I will. She is the prettiest sweetest little thing in this
world, and to tell you the truth I'm
goin' to settle right down now to the hardest work I ever did in my life."
"That's the way to talk, my boy,"said Tom putting his hand an Hose's shoulder. "You'll have enough to do these hard times to make a livin'."
They made a handsome picture, in that humble home, as they stood there before the Preacher. The young bride was trembling from head to foot with fright. Hose was trying to look grave and dignified and grinning in spite of himself whenever he looked into the face of his blushing mate. The mother was standing near, her face full of pride in her daughter's beauty and happiness, her heart all a quiver with the memories of her own wedding day seventeen years before. Tom was thinking of the morrow when he would be turned out of his home and his eyes filled with tears.
The Rev. John Durham had pronounced them man and wife and hurried away to see some people who were sick. The old fiddler was doing his best. Hose and his bride were shaking hands with their friends, and the boys were trying to tease the bridegroom with hoary old jokes.
Suddenly a black shadow fell across the doorway. The fiddle ceased, and every eye was turned to the door. The burly figure of a big negro trooper from a company stationed in the town stood before them. His face was in a broad grin, and his eyes bloodshot with whiskey. He brought his musket down on the floor with a bang.
"My frien's, I'se sorry ter disturb yer but I has orders ter search dis house."
"Show your orders," said Tom hobbling before him.
"Well, deres one un 'em !" he said still grinning as be cocked his gun and presented it toward Tom. "En ef dat aint ennuf day's fifteen mo' stanin' 'roun' dis house. It's no use ter make er fuss. Come on, boys!"
Before Tom could utter another word of protest six more negro troopers laughing and nudging one another crowded into the room. Suddenly one of them threw a bucket of water in the fire place where a pine knot blazed and two others knocked out the candles.
There was a scuffle, the quick thud of heavy blows, and Hose Norman fell to the floor senseless. A piercing scream rang from his bride as she was seized in the arms of the negro who first appeared. He rapidly bore her toward the door surrounded by the six scoundrels who had accompanied him.
"My God, save her! They are draggin' Annie out of the house," shrieked her mother.
"Help! Help! Lord have mercy!" screamed the girl as they bore her away toward the woods, still laughing and yelling.
Tom overtook one of them, snatched his wooden leg off, and knocked him down. Hose's mountain boys were crowding round Tom with their pistols in their hands.
"What shall we do, Tom? If we shoot we may kill Annie."
"Shoot, man! My God, shoot! There are things worse than death!"
They needed no urging. Like young tigers they sprang across the orchard toward the woods whence came the sound of the laughter of the negroes.
"Stop de screechin'!" cried the leader.
"She nebber get dat gag out now."
"Too smart fur de po' white trash dis time sho'!" laughed one.
Three pistol shots rang out like a single report! Three more! and three
more! There was a wild scramble. Taken completely by surprise, the negroes
fled in confusion. Four lay on the ground. Two were dead, one mortally wounded
and three more had crawled away with bullets
in their bodies. There in the midst of the heap lay the unconscious girl gagged.
"Is she hurt?" cried a mountain boy.
"Can't tell, take her to the house quick."
They laid her across the bed in the room that had been made sweet and tidy for the bride and groom. The mother bent over her quickly with a light. Just where the blue veins crossed in her delicate temple there was a round hole from which a scarlet stream was running down her white throat.
Without a word the mother brought Tom, showed it to him, and then fell into his arms and burst into a flood of tears.
"Don't, don't cry so Annie! It might have been worse. Let us thank God she was saved from them brutes."
Hose's friends crowded round Tom now with tear-stained faces.
"Tom, you don't know how broke up we all are over this. Poor child, we did the best we could."
"It's all right, boys. You've been my friends to-night. You've saved my little gal. I want to shake hands with you and thank you. If you hadn't been here—My God, I can't think of what would 'a happened! Now it's all right. She's safe in God's hands."
The next morning when Tom Camp called at the parsonage to see the Preacher and arrange for the funeral of his daughter he found him in bed.
"Dr. Durham is quite sick, Mr. Camp, but he'll see you,"said Mrs. Durham.
"Thank you, M'am."
She took the old soldier by his hand and her voice choked as she said,
"You have my heart's deepest sympathy in your awful sorrow."
"It'll be all be the for best, M'am. The Lord gave and
the Lord has taken away. I will still say, Blessed is the name of the Lord!"
"I wish I had such faith." She led Tom into the room where the Preacher lay.
"Why, what's this, Preacher? A bandage over your eye, looks like somebody knocked you in the head?"
"Yes, Tom, but it's nothing. I'll be all right by to-morrow. You needn't tell me anything that happened at your house. I've heard the black hell-lit news. It will be all over this county by night and the town will be full of grim-visaged men before many hours. Your child has not died in vain. A few things like this will be the trumpet of the God of our fathers that will call the sleeping manhood of the Anglo-Saxon race to life again. I must be up and about this afternoon to keep down the storm. It is not time for it to break."
"But, Preacher, what happened to you?"
"Oh! nothing much, Tom."
"I'll tell you what happened," cried Mrs. Durham standing erect with her great dark eyes flashing with anger.
"As he came home last night from a visit to the sick, he was ambushed by a gang of negroes led by a white scoundrel, knocked down, bound and gagged and placed on a pile of dry fence rails. They set fire to the pile and left him to burn to death. It attracted the attention of Doctor Graham who was passing. He got to him in time to save him."
"You don't say so!"
"I'm sorry, Tom, I'm so weak this morning I couldn't come to see you. I know your poor wife is heartbroken."
"Yes, sir, she is, and it cuts me to the quick when I think that I gave
the orders to the boys to shoot. But, Preacher, I'd a killed her with own
hand if I couldn't
a saved her no other way. I'd do it over again a thousand times if I had to."
"I don't blame you, I'd have done the same thing. I can't come to see you to-day, Tom, I'll be down to your house to-morrow a few minutes before we start for the cemetery. I must get up for dinner and prevent the men from attacking these troops. They'll not dare to try to sell your place to-day. The public square is full of men now, and it's only nine o'clock. You go home and cheer up your wife. How is Hose?"
"He's still in bed. The Doctor says his skull is broken in one place, but he'll be over it in a few weeks."
Tom hobbled back to his house, shaking hands with scores of silent men on the way.
The Preacher crawled to his desk and wrote this note to the young officer in command of the post,
MY DEAR CAPTAIN,
The Commandant acted an the advice immediately.
* * * * * *
It was the week following before the sales began. There was no help for
it. The town and the county
were doomed to a ruin more complete and terrible than the four years of war had brought. Independence had been saved by a skillful movement of General Worth, who sought an interview with Legree when his council first issued their levy of thirty per cent for municipal purposes.
"Mr. Legree, let's understand one another," said the General.
"All right, I'm a man of reason."
"A bird in hand is worth two in the bush!"
"Every time, General."
"Well, call off your dogs, and rescind your order for a thirty per cent tax levy, and I'll raise $30,000 in cash and pay it to you in two days."
"Make it $50,000 and it's a bargain."
The General raised twenty thousand in the city, went North and borrowed the remaining thirty thousand.
Legree and his brigands received this ransom and moved on to the next town.
Poor Hambright was but a scrawny little village on a red hill with no big values to be saved, and no mills to interest the commercial world, and the auctioneer lifted his hammer.