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James Baldwin

News from the County Seat

T HE next evening just as the full moon was rising above the tree-tops, our farm wagon with the two young horses attached was driven quietly out through the front gateway. On the driver's seat was David with his coat and boots on, for the air was frosty; and by his side sat 'Lihu Bright, the Widder's eldest son, a man well skilled in the operation of the "underground." There were a number of large pumpkins in the wagon, and in the midst of them, peeping out from a loose heap of straw, was a round, woolly, black head, which I recognized as that of the fugitive.

We stood by the gate to see them off.

"Well, Elihu," said father, "we are trusting this whole business to thee. Thee has been over the road and thee knows the way, and thee understands what to do in case there is any trouble."

"I don't think there's much danger of getting into trouble," answered 'Lihu. "We shall drive around through the Wild Cat Settlement instead of by way of Dashville, although it is three or four miles farther. We'll cross the river at the North Ford, and then foller the state road straight to Hezekiah Jones's. There ain't many houses along that way, and I doubt if we shall meet a single person. I've driv over that road many and many a time, and I know every foot of it even in the night."

"And when does thee suppose you will get to Hezekiah's?"

"Some time about midnight, I hope. Then we'll leave the passenger in Hezekiah's charge; and after we've let the horses rest a spell, we'll drive down to Dashville and then back home. You may look for us about this time to-morrow."

"I see thee understands thyself, and I hope you will get along all right," said father. Then reaching his hand over toward the little woolly head in the midst of the pumpkins, he added, "Farewell, Samuel. It is my fervent wish that thee may get to the end of thy journey in safety."

A long black arm emerged from the straw and the semi-darkness, and there was a friendly shaking of hands.

"Goo'-by, massah! I's 'bleeged."

"Git ep!" cried David, slapping the horses with the lines.

And they were away.

"Farewell, Samuel!" It was the voice of Cousin Mandy Jane, calling from the door-step; but the annex to the underground, together with its passengers, had already disappeared in the murky shadows of the lane.

We stood and listened until long after they had turned into the big road and were speeding straight toward Dry Forks and the lonely country beyond. Occasionally we could hear the crunching of the wheels in some gravelly portion of the highway, or the clatter of the horses' hoofs as they cantered down some smooth incline, or the slam-bang of the wagon as it jolted over rocks and projecting roots and into treacherous chuck-holes. Little by little, these sounds became fainter and less frequent, and finally, listen as intently as we might, no sounds came to our ears save the chirping of belated katydids and the melancholy hootings of a pair of owls down in the new clearing.

"I reckon we had better go in out of the night air," said father.

And this I was glad to do; for the fire was blazing brightly, and my new book was waiting for me on the bookshelf, and Inviz was impatient to come and sit by my side while I read the charming story of Robinson.

The next day the weather had changed. Gray clouds obscured the sky, and a chilling mist hung in the air, filling the trees with moisture and the whole world with melancholy. All our thoughts were with David and 'Lihu and the fugitive black man; and all our conversation consisted of speculations concerning their whereabouts and their safety and the probability of slave-hunters having captured them and carried them away to distant ungodly Kentucky.

Toward evening the mist changed into a drizzling rain, and our anxiety and downheartedness were correspondingly increased. But these feelings were of short duration; for when all of us were again assembled in our great living-room, and the fire was leaping up the chimney, and the supper things were cleared away, and each of us was busy after his own fashion, cheerfulness gradually returned and we almost forgot the two heroes who must now be somewhere out in the cold and rain.

Father drew his shoemaker's bench from its place under Aunt Rachel's bed, and setting it near the center of the room began the task of putting new half-soles on Cousin Mandy Jane's every-day shoes, of which, the weather now growing colder, she would soon be in need. In order that he might see distinctly, a candle was lighted and placed on the candlestick quite near his elbow. Mother, with her sewing, sat down on the farther side of the candlestand, while I with my book in hand, doubled myself up on the floor near her feet.

"The candle is lots better for Robert to read by than the firelight," remarked Cousin Mandy Jane, busily wiping the dishes. "It's safer like, and ain't so tryin' on the eyes."

"It's better for sewin', too," said mother.

"It ain't no better for knittin'," muttered Aunt Rachel. "I can knit jist as well in one light as in t'other."

Father had fitted a last in one of the shoes and had cut the half-soles to the proper size. He turned quietly to me and said, "I think, Robert, that we would all enjoy hearing thee read some of Robinson Crusoe's surprising adventures."

I had already perused more than half of the volume, but I was so proud of the honor of reading aloud to the rest of the family that I now turned back to the beginning in order that every one might have a true understanding of the narrative. All were busy at work, and yet I knew that I would have at least three attentive listeners—father, mother, and Mandy Jane. As for Aunt Rachel, what cared she for hearing about Robinson's adventures so long as she could have recourse to her new pipe, her knitting and happy memories of old Carliny? And, as for Jonathan, he was a hater of books and never a good listener; and as he sat on the farther side of the hearth, shelling corn for the mill, he had no room in his mind for any thoughts save dreams of pretty Esther Lamb and the forty-acre piece down by the Corners.

I cleared my throat several times and then began: "I was born in the year 1632 in the City of York." Scarcely had I pronounced this first sentence, when father started in with his pegging. A rare concert followed. Whether father timed his tapping with my somewhat rapid delivery of words, or whether I unconsciously tuned my voice to harmonize with the regular thump-thumping of his hammer, I can not say; but certainly we had a most joyous time of it.

"Thump! rap-tap! Thump! rap-tap!" sounded the little round-headed shoemaker's hammer, alternately pounding the awl into the leather and then driving home the little pegs; and the syllables fell from my lips with almost equal regularity and precision. Paragraph after paragraph was read, and leaf after leaf was turned; and at length the "half-solin' " was nearing completion. Once I paused to snuff the candle, and Cousin Mandy Jane availed herself of the opportunity to remark: "Sakes alive! It's as good as a quiltin'. It's a sight more interestin' than George Fox's Journal."

And mother was of the same mind save with reference to a single point. "It would have been right smart better," she said, "if Robinson had used the plain language instead of the language of the world's people."

I was now just in the midst of the account of the great storm, "when the wind still blowing very hard, the ship struck upon a sand, and in a moment the sea broke over her." I can never forget that passage. The situation was so perilous, the suspense was so great, that as I pronounced the words, the shoe hammer in father's uplifted hand paused before descending, the "rap-tap-tap" was omitted for the full space of three seconds, and every one of my hearers waited breathless to hear what happened next. With a quaver in my voice I proceeded, and the tension was relaxed. (O my dear Leonidas, my dear Leona! You know not the delights of poverty. Surfeited with "advantages" and overgorged with "blessings," you are incapable of such joys as were mine on that well-remembered evening. A book to you is only a book—an inanimate thing; to the poor only is it "the precious life blood of a master spirit.")

The last shoe peg was driven home. The new half-soles were neatly trimmed and smoothed. Father was preparing the lampblack with which to blacken their raw edges; and my reading had progressed to the culmination of the next great crisis when "a mountain-like wave took us with such fury that it overset the boat at once, giving us not time hardly to say, O God!  for we were swallowed up in a moment."

And there I stopped; for we heard the sound of wheels and the creaking of the barnyard gate and David's rasping voice calling to his brother to "come out here and take keer of these 'yer tarnal critters." Instantly a change came over the spirit of our dreams. Jonathan, waking with a start from his pleasant meditations, rushed out to obey the summons; mother rose to stir the fire; and Cousin Mandy Jane began hurriedly to assemble some half-cold victuals for the returned hero's supper. I ran to the window, and looking toward the barn, could dimly see in the tempered darkness the outline of the old wagon with the light of our little tin lantern flickering faintly at the foot of the dashboard. Father, with some little compromise of dignity, quickly put the finishing touches to the new half-soles, and rising, pushed the shoe bench back to its place beneath the bed. He was turning toward the door when David suddenly entered, chilled, wet, and disgruntled with his long ride through the drizzling rain. He stumbled toward the fireplace, removing his water-soaked coat and hat and stamping his big boots upon the hearthstones.

"Where's Elihu?" asked father, somewhat anxiously.

"He went on home by the short cut," answered David crustily. "If thee only knowed how tarnal chilly I am, thee wouldn't be so much concerned about 'Lihu."

He stood in close proximity to the fire, turning first one side toward the generous heat, and then the other; and all the while he continued to give vent to a series of bearish grunts and growls and lamentations as incoherent as they were unnecessary.

"Say, Robert, thee little Towhead, thee!" he blurted; "go and fetch me the bootjack."

I obeyed silently and sulkily, for I didn't like his rude way of talking.

"Thee's as slow as m'lasses in cold weather," he growled, as he snatched the useful jack from my hands and proceeded, with its assistance, to pull off his boots. It was a hard job accompanied with such straining and complaining; and when it was finally accomplished he sat down by the hearth and stretched his steaming bare feet toward the cheery fire.

We bore with him gently, well knowing that as soon as he was made comfortable, his good spirits would begin to return and he would be anxious to tell us all about his adventures in the service of freedom. So we asked no questions, but patiently looked on and bided our time. And, in order that he might enjoy his supper in the full warmth of the fire, mother motioned to me to set the candlestand close beside him on the hearth.

"That's right, Towhead," he said in tones conciliatory and much mollified; "and if somebody'd only hustle with them there victuals I'd be glad all round. I'm so tarnal hungry I do b'lieve I could swaller a yoke of steers without half chawin' 'em."

And the victuals were not long delayed; Cousin Mandy Jane, with astonishing alacrity, loaded the candlestand with a variety of homely eatables in quantities sufficient to satisfy the appetite of the hungriest man. Nor did David delay his onslaught upon them, but began with ruthless zeal to devour whatever came first to his hand—a squash pie, a glass of preserves, roas'n'-ears, pickles, corn dodgers, and vast supplies of fat pork and string beans—until the wonder was that one capacious stomach could contain so much. Then, pausing between mouthfuls of boiled cabbage and currant jam, he called out, "Cousin Mandy Jane, if thee'll only fetch me three or four cups of that there coffee, sizzlin' hot, I reckon it'll drive some of these tarnal shivers out of my marrer bones."

"Th'ain't no coffee," said Cousin Mandy Jane. "It's all slave labor and we daresn't use it."

"What does thee think I keer for the labor of it?" he answered. "When a feller's plumb gone flabbergasted by ridin' all day in the cold, it ain't no time to be pertickler about sich things as slave labor and free labor."

"But the coffee hain't been browned yet," mother explained in her peacefulest, purring tones. "It would have to be roasted and ground and b'iled, and that would take a longer time than thee wants to wait. 'Twould take anyhow a half-hour."

"Well, then, give me somethin' else that's hot. I don't keer what it is, jist so it'll wrastle with the tarnal shivers that's in my marrer bones."

"How will some pennyrile tea do?" asked mother.

"It'll do all right if thee'll make it hot enough and strong enough," he answered. "I don't keer if it's strong enough to bear up an iron wedge eendwise; it'll be all the more soothin' and warmin'."

And so, under the wholesome influence of the fire, the food and the stimulating drink, the effects of the dampness and night air were overcome and there was a glow in David's cheeks that told of returned comfort and good nature. He glanced around at our inquiring faces, and fidgeted uneasily in his chair; and still no one ventured to ask a question. The fire was now making him altogether too warm, drops of sweat were oozing from his forehead, the chills had finally been driven ingloriously from his marrer bones, the hero was ready to talk; and still we waited in silence.

"I reckon nobody don't keer to hear nothin' about our trip to Uncle Hezekiah's," he finally muttered, sliding his chair backward till he was well away from the now oppressive heat.

The psychological moment had arrived for which we had been waiting; and father therefore gently responded, "I s'pose thee and 'Lihu got through safe, or else thee wouldn't be here now."

"Safe! Well, I should reckon! We didn't lose the road nary time, and we didn't meet nary a livin' soul 'twixt here and the Wild Cat Settlement. I tell thee, 'Lihu Bright knowed the way, else we'd never got along them tarnal roads by moonlight. And what does thee think? That good-for-nothin' black feller that was puttin' us to all that trouble, he jist laid among the punkins and slept like a darnick till we driv up to Uncle Hezekiah's door; and then we had to 'most shake the gizzard out of him 'fore he'd stir himself and git up and go into the house."

His tongue being thus once started, the hero continued to rattle out his somewhat rambling narrative, interjecting his speech with many repetitions and homely metaphors, and giving none of us room to say a word or ask a question. In the end we gathered that the expedition had been eminently successful. After a rapid drive of five hours the fugitive had been safely landed at Hezekiah Jones's just as the clock was striking midnight. Uncle Hezekiah, having been mysteriously apprised of their coming, was prepared to receive them. The fugitive was hidden in the loft to remain there until the way was clear to convey him to the next station. The weary horses were stabled and fed; and Elihu and David retired to rest in Uncle Hezekiah's best room, where they slept the sleep of the righteous in Aunt Jane's best feather-bed. Then at seven in the morning they breakfasted, presented the pumpkins to Uncle Hezekiah and prepared for the return trip by way of Dashville, the county seat.

"We driv down along the river," continued David, "and I reckon it was about ten o'clock when we 'riv' in the town. And thee jist ought to see!" And here he slapped his thigh. "Thee wouldn't know the place. Why, I counted ten new houses, strung along both sides of the road, and there's as many more jist beginnin' to go up. It made me think of Larnceburg—sich a tarnal noise of hammerin' and sawin', and sich crowds of people walkin' along the paths by the side of the road. . . . And then, what does thee think? The Methodisters, they've jist put up a bran-new meetin'-house, with a steeple on to it. And right down ag'inst the court-house the county's built a new jail with iron bars 'crosst the winders. Me an' 'Lihu, we went down to see it, and I tell thee it made me think of Larnceburg."

He paused for breath, and father quietly remarked, "I suppose that people are flocking to Dashville on account of the railroad that's about to connect it with Nopplis. Calvin Fletcher told me last spring that they had already begun work on it."

"Begun!" exclaimed David. "I should reckon 'tis begun; it's most finished. And what does thee think? I met old Isaac Wilson over there. Thee knows old Isaac Wilson?"

"Certainly, we used to be playmates, when we were boys. What's he doing in Dashville?"

"He's keepin' a store; and he took me into it, and showed me all the things he's got to sell. He says that it's his 'pinion that Dashville will soon be the biggest town in Injanner. He says that the railroad is bound to make the place grow and he wouldn't be s'prised if it got clean ahead of Nopplis inside of the next five years. Oh, I tell thee, things is a-hummin' over there!"

"Well, I'm truly glad to hear about Isaac Wilson," said father. "I hope he will do well with his store."

"If thee could jist see what he's got in it!" exclaimed David. "Why! th' ain't nothin' he hain't got; and he gives trade for all the butter 'n' aigs the folks'll fetch in. He said that when the railroad gits started to runnin', he's goin' to buy wheat and wool and everything jist like they do at Larnceburg. He said for me to tell thee that we won't have to go to the 'Hio no more, nor even to Nopplis, 'cause we can do jist as well at the county seat."

"That is surely bringing the markets to our very door," said father. "I never expected that such a thing would happen in my  lifetime."

"Thee's right!" and David slapped his thigh most vigorously. "And Isaac said that he reckons the railroad will begin runnin' cars to Dashville afore spring. And, what does thee think? While the horses was restin' and eatin' by the court-house fence, 'Lihu and me went down toward the river to look at where they're diggin' for the road. Well, thee never seen so big a ditch in thy life; it's more'n twice as wide as our crick at the swimmin' hole, and it's deep enough to swaller a house; but there ain't no water in it. It's jist a cut, as they call it, right through the bluffs, so as to make the road kinder level like. We watched the men that was diggin' it a while and then we went round by the post-office; and I reckon it must have been nigh on to two o'clock when we hitched up and started home—and we hadn't come a mile afore this tarnal drizzlin' rain begun."

"Did thee git any mail at the post-office?" inquired Cousin Mandy Jane.

"Nary a thing 'ceptin' two Erays  for the Widder's folks and a letter for Joel Sparker that we mustn't forgit to take to meetin' for him to-morrow. But what does thee think? Isaac Wilson, he told us that the president was goin' to set up a new post-office right over here at the Dry Forks. It's to be in Seth Dawson's smith shop, and Seth he's been 'pinted postmaster."

"Well, I'm not so much surprised as gratified to hear that," said father. "We've been working two or three years to get a post-office established somewhere in the Settlement. But, certainly, things are moving rapidly nowadays."

"Thee's right! And thee'd 'a' thought, so if thee'd seen how rapidly the post-boy moves. We met him jist as we were drivin' out of town. He was on a sorrel pony and had the mail-bag strapped tight on to the saddle under him; and he was ridin', lickity cut, toward the post-office and was goin' so fast that he didn't nod his head nor holler 'Howdy' as he passed us. They do say that he rides all the way from Nopplis to Terry Hut every week, a-carryin' letters and things to the different places. And his mail-bag was stuffed so full with letters 'n' things that he couldn't hardly set on it."

"I suppose we'll see him quite often down this way when the post-office gets started at the Forks," remarked father. "But has thee got Joel Sparker's letter with thee?"

"Yes, father! It's in my coat pocket, and that ain't all, nother!" he answered, speaking excitedly as though he had been suddenly reminded of something. He lumbered across the room and picked up his water- soaked coat which mother had hung on a chair to dry, and from its capacious pockets brought forth the letter, wet, discolored and badly crumpled.

"Here's the tarnal thing," he said contemptuously. "There was five cents postage on it, and don't thee give it to old Joel till he pays it, nother. And here's somethin' else I brung;" and he partially unfolded a printed sheet which appeared to have pictures printed on it. "What does thee reckon it is, Towhead?"

The smile which broadened his grisly visage was truly wonderful to see, and our curiosity was excited to the highest pitch. "Open it, so we can see what's on to it, David," said Cousin Mandy Jane.

"Aw! thee shet up!" growled the big fellow. "I reckon if anybody gits to see it, it's Towhead. It was give to me in Dashville by a man with slicked-up boots on his feet and a white collar round his neck. He axed me if we had any children to our house; and I said, 'One leetle tow-headed shaver;' and he said, 'Kin he read?' I laughed right out, and said, 'Well, he don't do nothin' else, so fur as I ever knowed.' Then the man, he laughed, and stuck this paper in my hand, and says he, 'Take this home and tell the leetle tow-headed shaver to read it out loud to the rest of you.' So I guess Towhead will be the one to git the first squint at it."

Then, with a look of mingled triumph and condenscension, he slowly unfolded the mysterious sheet and spread it out right before my eyes. It was larger by half than a sheet of the National Era,  and was printed on only one side. Some of the head-lines, which were in very large type, were red while others were blue; and all around the border there was a row of pictures too wonderful to be described. The illustrations of birds and beasts in my "Animal Book," or in Parley's Geography  were plain and insignificant when compared with them. Here were vivid representations of lions and tigers, of elephants and zebras, of monkeys and galloping horses, and of indescribable two-legged creatures in the act of jumping through a series of barrel hoops.

I read the bold head-line at the top:

Van Bamburg's Great Moral Exhibition

—and underneath it the exhortation,

"Be sure to come and bring the children."

I continued reading, and with some difficulty made out the statement that this gigantic aggregation of zoological and ornithological wonders was now on its way to the Wabash Country and would, at an early date, be on exhibition at the town of Dashville—"for one day only."

"Read it out loud, Towhead," commanded David, his countenance beaming with pride at the thought that he had been the carrier and custodian of so wonderful a document.

"Yes, read it so the rest of us can hear all about it," cried Cousin Mandy Jane.

How proud I felt as I complied with this request! I began at the first line and read tremblingly, while the whole family stood near, listening intently, looking at the pictures and inwardly wondering. There were many big words that I had never seen before, and of whose meaning I had not the slightest idea, but we gathered the information that this was the finest menagerie of wild beasts ever seen in Indiana, and that besides its many other features it was truly the most astounding moral exhibition ever presented for the instruction and edification of the human race.

Finally, after pausing many times to explain some difficult passage, I reached in triumph the bottom line where the prices of admission were given and the injunction was repeated to "be sure to come and bring the little ones."

"Jist think!" ejaculated Cousin Mandy Jane; "only twenty-five cents to git in and see all them wonderful and preposterous animiles! And children half price!"

"Yes, jist think of it! And all them things is goin' to be at Dashville for folks to look at, next Fourth-day!" exclaimed David, slapping his thigh most viciously.

"Yes," said Jonathan, examining the pictures, "they've got a elephant, and a tiger, and a lion, and a snake, and a fox, and four queer-lookin' monkeys, and every other kind of animile thee can think of."

"And they've got a moral, too!" cried Cousin Mandy Jane. " 'The greatest moral show on earth,' the paper says. I'd jist like to see that there moral—I'd like to see what kind of a animile it's like!"

Thereupon father smiled and gently corrected her ignorance. "The dictionary," he said, in closing, "defines moral to mean upright, honest. So I take it for granted that a moral show is one that shows people certain things that are upright and improving."

"I'd like mighty well to see all them animiles," remarked Jonathan; "but I'll be dog-goned if I wouldn't look at the money a right smart while afore I'd pay it out to go to any sich a show. Two levies ain't much, but every little helps; and what good would it do to look at them there tarnal beastesses, anyhow?"

"The paper says it's a moral show," I ventured to observe; "and so, maybe it will do a good deal of good. And then it says, 'Children half price. Come, and don't forget to bring the little ones'. I wish I could go."

Then Aunt Rachel roused herself and spoke from her corner: "When I was a gal down to Carliny, I used to go to sich shows. They was mighty divertin'; but I never seen nobody git religion by goin' to 'em. There was one man that had three bears in a little tent, and I paid a penny to see 'em; but I'd never do it ag'in."

"Well, I wish I could go to this show," I repeated, feeling quite desperate.

"Yes, it'd do thee some good, I'm a-thinkin'," said Aunt Rachel; "and if father will let thee go, I'll give thee a levy to git in with."

"Oh, if I only could go!" I cried.

"Indeed, Robert, I should like for thee to see the animals, and I must confess that I have some desire to see them myself," said father. "But I am not quite clear in my mind whether it would be right for us to attend this show. If it is only a worldly diversion, intended to amuse the frivolous, we ought to bear a testimony against it; but if it is really instructive and improving to the mind, we ought to encourage it."

"Well, it is  instructive, for this paper says so," and I pointed to the very words, all painted in bold red letters. "And it says the show is upright and honest, too! 'Undoubtedly the most entertaining and most instructive moral exhibition now in existence.'"

"Them's mighty convincin' words," muttered Aunt Rachel.

"And that's a mighty purty paper with the picters of animiles all round the edges," said Cousin Mandy Jane. "Wouldn't it look nice tacked up over the mantel in the big-house where all the folks that come visitin' can see it?"

"Thee's right!" exclaimed David. "It'd set things off right smart. I'll git a couple of shingle nails and stick it up there this very night, if father says I may."

"Wait till to-morrow," said father; and then turning to me, he added, "Robert, thee may fetch me the Book."

I obeyed; and he read how Noah gathered all creation into his three-hundred-foot ark, "every beast after his kind and every bird of every sort—two and two of all flesh."