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John Brent/Chapter XXVI

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Ham[edit]

Two days Biddulph solaced himself on those rare luxuries of Ruby’s ménage; the third, we started.

Ruby and the surgeon rode with us a score of miles. It was hard to say good-bye. We were grateful, and they were sorry.

“What can we do for you, Ruby?”

“Raze Laramie, abolish the plains, level the Rockys, nullify the Sioux, and disband the American army.”

“What can we do for you, Doctor?”

“Find me a wife, box her up so that no one will stop her in transitu, mark Simeon Pathie, M. D., U. S. A., and ship to Fort Vancouver, Oregon, where I shall be stationed next summer. Your English lady in half a day has spoiled my philosophy of a life.”

“Good-bye and good luck!”

It was late travelling through that houseless waste. Deep snow already blanched the Black Hills, and Laramie Peak, their chief. Mr. Bierstadt, in his fine picture in this year’s Academy, has shown them as they are in the mellow days of summer. Now, cold and stern, they warned us to hasten on.

We did hasten. We crowded through the buffalo; we crossed and recrossed the Platte, already curdling with winter; we dashed over the prairies of Kansas, blackened by fire and whitened by snow, but then unstained by any peaceful settler’s blood.

Jake Shamberlain, returning with his party, met us on the way.

“I passed the train with the young woman and her father,” said he. “We camped together one night, and bein’ as I was a friend of your ’n, she give me a talk. Pooty tall talkin’ ’t wuz, and I wuz teched in a new spot. I’ve felt mean as muck ever sence she opened to me on religion, and when I git home I’m goan to swing clear of the Church, ef I ken cut clear, and emigrate to Oregon. So, Barrownight, next time you come out, you’ll find me on a claim there, out to the Willamette or the Umpqua, just as much like a gentleman’s park in England as one grasshopper is to another, only they hain’t got no such mountains to England as I’ll show you thar.”

“Well, Jake, we’ll try to pay you our respects.”

We hastened on. Why pause for our adventures? They were but episodes along our new gallop of three. This time it was not restless, anxious gallop. We had no doubt but that in good time we should overtake our friends, in regions where men are not shot along the right arm when they protect insulted dames.

Brent was himself again. We rode hard. Biddulph was as fine a fellow as my grandmother England has mothered. Find an Englishman vital enough to be a Come-outer, and you have found a man worthy to be the peer of an American with Yankee education. Western scope, and California irrepressibility.

Winter chased us close. Often we woke at night, and found our bivouac sheeted with cold snow, — a cool sheet, but luckily outside our warm blankets. It was full December when the plains left us, fell back, and beached us upon the outer edge of civilization, at Independence, Missouri.

The muddy Missouri was running dregs. Steamboats were tired of skipping from sand-bar to sand-bar. Engineer had reported to Captain, that “Kangaroo No. 5 would bust, if he didn’t stop trying to make her lift herself over the damp country by her braces.” No more steam-boating on the yellow ditch until there was a rise; until the Platte sent down sand three and water one, or the Yellowstone mud three and water one, or the Missouri proper grit three and water one. We must travel by land to St. Louis and railroads.

We could go with our horses as fast as the stage-coaches. So we sold our pack beasts, and started to continue our gallop of three across Missouri.

Half-way across, we stopped one evening at the mean best tavern in a mean town, — a frowzy county town, with a dusty public square, a boxy church, and a spittley court-house.

Fit entertainment for beast the tavern offered. We saw our horses stabled, and had our supper.

“Shall we go into the Spittoon?” said Biddulph.

“Certainly,” said Brent. “The bar-room — I am sorry to hear you speak of it with foreign prejudice — is an institution, and merits study. Argee, upon the which the bar-room is based, is also an institution.”

“Well, I came to study American institutions. Let us go in and take a whiff of disgust.”

Fit entertainment for brute the bar-room offered. In that club-room we found the brute class drinking, swearing, spitting, squabbling over the price of hemp and the price of “niggers,” and talking what it called “politics.”

One tall, truculent Pike, the loudest of all that blatant crew, seemed to Brent and myself an old acquaintance. We had seen him or his double somewhere. But neither of us could fit him with a pedestal in our long gallery of memory. Saints one takes pains to remember, and their scenes; but satyrs one endeavors to lose.

“Have you had enough of the Spittoon?” I asked Biddulph. “Shall we go up? They’ve put us all three in the same room; but bivouacs in the same big room — Out-Doors — are what we are best used to.”

Two and a half beds, one broken-backed chair, a wash-stand decked with an ancient fringed towel and an abandoned tooth-brush, one torn slipper, and a stove-pipe hole, furnished our bedchamber.

We were about to cast lots for the half-bed, when we heard two men enter the next room. The partition was only paper pasted over lath, and cut up as if a Border Ruffian member of Congress had practised at it with a bowie-knife before a street-fight. Every word of our neighbors came to us. They were talking of a slave bargain. I eliminate their oaths, though such filtration does them injustice.

“Eight hundred dollars,” said the first speaker, and his voice startled us as if a dead man we knew had spoken. “Eight hundred, — that’s the top of my pile fur that boy. Ef he warn’t so old and hadn’t one eye poked out, I agree he’d be wuth a heap more.”

“Waal, a trade’s a trade. I’ll take yer stump. Count out yer dimes, and I’ll fill out a blank bill of sale. Murker, the boy’s yourn.”

“Murker!” — we both started at the name. This was the satyr we had observed in the bar-room. Had Fulano’s victim crept from under his cairn in Luggernel Alley, and chased us to take flesh here and harm us again. Such a superstitious thought crossed my mind.

The likeness — look, voice, and name — was presently accounted for.

“You’re lookin’ fur yer brother out from Sacramenter, ’bout now, I reckon,” said the trader.

“He wuz comin’ cross lots with a man named Larrap, a pardener of his’n. Like enough they’ve stayed over winter in Salt Lake. They oughter rake down a most a mountainious pile thar.”

“Mormons is flush and sarcy with their dimes sence the emigration. Now thar’s yer bill of sale, all right.”

“And thar’s yer money, all right.”

“That are’s wut I call a screechin’ good price fur an old one-eyed nigger. Fourteen hundred dollars, — an all-fired price.”

“Eight hundred, you mean.”

“No; fourteen. Yer see, you’re not up ter taime on the nigger question. I know ’em like a church-steeple. When I bought that are boy, now comin’ three year, I seed he wuz a sprightly nigger, one er yer ambitious sort, what would be mighty apt to git fractious, an’ be makin’ tracks, onless I got a holt on him. So sez I to him, ‘Ham, you’re a sprightly nigger, one of the raal ambitious sort, now aincher?’ He allowed he warnt nothin’ else. ‘Waal,’ sez I, ‘Ham, how’d you like to buy yerself, an’ be a free nigger, an’ hev a house of yer own, an’ a woman of yer own, all jess like white folks?’ ‘Lor,’ sez he, ‘Massa, I’d like it a heap.’ ‘Waal,’ sez I, ‘you jess scrabble round an’ raise me seven hundred dollars, an’ I’ll sell you to yerself, an’ cheap at that.’ So yer see he began to pay up, an’ I got a holt on him. He’s a handy nigger, an’ a likely nigger, an’ a pop’lar nigger. He ken play on ther fiddle like taime, — pooty nigh a minstril is that are nigger. He ken cut hair an’ fry a beef-steak with ayry man. He ken drive team, an’ do a little j’iner work, an’ shoe a mule when thar ain’t no reg’lar blacksmith round. He made these yer boots, an’ reg’lar stompers they is. He’s one er them chirrupy, smilin’ niggers, with white teeth an’ genteel manners, what critturs an’ foaks nat’rally takes to. Waal, he picked up the bits and quarters right smart. He’s ben at it, lammin’ ahead raal ambitious, for ’bout three year. Last Sunday, after church, he pinted up the last ten of the six hundred. So I allowed ’t waz come time to sell him. He wuz gettin’ his bead drawed, an’ his idees sot on freedom very onhealthy. I didn’t like to disapp’int him to ther last; so I allowed ’t wuz jest as well to let you hev him cheap to go down River. That’s how to work them fractious runaway niggers. That are’s my patent. You ken hev it for nothin’. Haw! haw!”

“Haw, haw, haw! You are one er ther boys. I’m dum sorry that are trick can’t be did twicet on the same nigger. I reckon he knows too much for that. Waal, s’pose we walk round to the calaboose, ’fore we go to bed, an’ see ef he’s chained up all right.”

They went out.

Biddulph spoke first.

“Shame!”

“Yes,” said Brent; “do you wonder that we have to run away to the Rockys and spend our indignation on grizzlys?”

“What are we going to do now?”

“Try to abolish slavery in Ham’s case. Come; we’ll go buy him a file.”

“We seem to have business with the Murker family,” said I.

“A hard lot they are. Representative brutes!”

“I am getting a knowledge of all classes on your continent,” said Biddulph. “Some I like better than others!”

“Don’t be too harsh on us malecontents for the sin of slavery. It is an ancestral taint. We shall burn it out before many decades.”

“You had better, or it will set your own house on fire.”

It was late as we walked along the streets, channels of fever and ague now frozen up for the winter. We saw a light through a shop door, and hammered stoutly for admission.

A clerk, long-haired and frowzy, opened ungraciously. In the back shop were three others, also long-haired and frowzy, dealing cards and drinking a dark compost from tumblers.

“Port wine,” whispered Brent. “Fine Old London Dock Port is the favorite beverage, when the editor, the lawyer, the apothecary, and the merchant meet to play euchre in Missouri.”

We bought our files from the surly clerk, and made for the calaboose. It was a stout log structure, with grated windows. At one of these, by the low moonlight, we saw a negro. It was cold and late. Nobody was near. We hailed the man.

“Ham.”

“That’s me, Massa.”

“You’re sold to Murker, to go south to-morrow morning. If you want to get free, catch!”

Brent tossed him up the files.

“Catch again!” said Biddulph, and up went a rattling purse, England’s subsidy.

Ham’s white teeth and genteel manners appeared at once. He grinned, and whispered thanks.

“Is that all we can do?” asked the Baronet, as we walked off.

“Yes,” said Brent, taking a nasal tone. “Ham’s a pop’lar nigger, a handy nigger, one er your raal ambitious sort. He ken cut hair, fry a beefsteak, and play on the fiddle like a minstril. He ken shoe a mule, drive a team, do a little j’iner work, and make stompers. Yes, Biddulph, trust him to gnaw himself free with that Connecticut rat-tail.”

“Ham against Japhet; I hope he’ll win.”

“Now,” said Brent, “that we’ve put in action Christ’s Golden Rule, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and All-the-wisdom’s Preamble to the Constitution, we can sleep the sleep of well-doers, if we have two man-stealers — and one the brother of a murderer — only papered off from us.”