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Fisher's River
(North Carolina)
Scenes and Characters (1859)

  
 

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XXIII.---HAM RACHEL, OF ALABAMA.

Eufaula, Barbour County, Alabama, is a beautiful city, on the banks of the deep-channeled and rapid Chattahoochee, and in 1845, the time of the incidents of my story, was the mart of commerce for Barbour, Pike, Coffee, Dale, and Henry counties in Alabama, and of several counties contiguous in Georgia.

These Alabama counties were mostly settled by a poor, plain, hardy, robust, and honest people, many of them wholly uneducated.  All they cared for was "to make buckle and tongue meet" by raising stock, a few bales of cotton, and a little corn for bread.  Stock --- cow stock --- being the chief commodity, they were denominated "cow counties."

Now, mind, these were the first settlers.  Eufaula was a great city with them, like Paris, London, and New York to most folks.  When a "squatter," as some naughtily called them, carried his one, two, or three bales to market in Eufaula, the "ole 'omun" must needs go, and maybe one or two of the "childering," to see the "big town."  Hence you could see the ox-carts coming in, the "ole man" driving,and the "ole 'omun" sitting on the top of the one, two or three bales, and the "childering" walking.  The "ole 'omun" has brought with her several extra matters for sale:  butter, eggs, socks, etc.  Then for shopping after the "cotting" was sold.  Hundreds of little notions must be bought, not forgetting a jug, at least, of the "good critter," for "ailments and sich things."

Of course Eufaula exerted a great influence over these counties in all things, particularly in politics.  As the town went in politics, so did the country.  Their favorite merchants were their oracles  in these matters.

To illustrate:

I was in Eufaula in 1848, shortly after the candidates for the presidency, Cass and Taylor, were nominated.  I was in the storehouse of Mr. G------, a Whig, when there came in one of the "sovereigns," a Democrat, a tall, stoop-shouldered, sallow-faced, meek, quiet, teachable-looking man, with copperas "britches" (no mistake), and a home-made cotton shirt, constituting his entire dress.  His copperas was "gallused" up as high as his fork would admit, which nearly lifted him off the ground.  His rustic looks and movements would have attracted the attention of the most unobserving man on earth.  Mr. G. gave him a seat, which he accepted, and sat down characteristically.  When seated, he looked to Mr. G. with looks indicating, "Speak, for thy servant heareth.  I am as a young bird;  cram any thing down me you choose."

After drawing a long breath or two in a peculiar way, he said,

"What do the people say about here in regard of the nomination for president, Mr. G.?"

Mr. G.  We are all for Taylor;  we know him;  he has fought our battles;  he is one of the people;  if he were to come to your cabin, he would be at home, drink buttermilk, eat bread and butter and yam potatoes with you.  As to General Cass, he's been doing nothing all his life but scooting canoes up and down the Western waters, and knows nothing about statesmanship.  Taylor is the man for the people;  he'll be elected sure.

Copperas.  Yes, I've hearn ov Ginral Taylor;  he has fout the Maxicans, and licked 'um all up, like a cow licks up salt, and has kivered the nation with glory, like a bedquilt kivers a bed;  but as to this man, Cass, I nuver hearn ov him afore.  I didn't know thar was sich a man treadin' sole-leather.

If Mr. Copperas did not see a merchant who was a Democrat before he left, he certainly voted for Taylor.

These things premised, it was my "manifest destiny" to spend a night in Barbour County in 1845, I believe --- a night never to be forgotten.  It was on the main road between Clayton, the county seat, and Eufaula, the mart of commerce.  A little while before sundown I called at a very good-looking house, and requested to stay all night as a traveler.  Permission was granted by the lady of the house.  I saw no man.  I soon learned that John M'D------ resided there, who had gone that day to Eufaula, and would soon return.  I congratulated myself on my good fortune in getting to a quiet, good house, where I could take a refreshing night's rest.  But alas!  to moralize a little, how soon are our best, most sanguine hopes blasted!  A man knoweth not what a night may bring forth, as well as a day.

I seated myself in the portico facing the public road, got hold of an old newspaper, almanac, or something of the kind, with which to amuse myself a little, but it was not long before I saw some half dozen wagons coming from toward Eufaula.  They halted at the gate, came in with great freedom and boldness, drew water from the well, and watered their teams, as though it belonged to them, interspersing their labors with waggish remarks and blasphemy, not even respecting the presence of the lady, Mrs. M'D------.  They then commenced popping their whips about in the yard loud enough to shock the nerves of nervous people, and then asked the lad if she "mout have some chickens fur sale.  We hain't bin eatin' nothin' but dried beef so long we've wore ur corn-grinders down to the gums, and we want suthin' else by way of change."

"We've none for sale," replied Mrs. M'D------.

"No chickens!"  said they.  "Thar goes a durned old rooster, old as Mathuzlum, yit we'll buy him ruther than wear out ur teeth on dried beef.  Won't you sell him?  You've sartinly got uther roosters to sarve and take keer of yer hens, hain't you?"

How the conference ended I can not tell, for I left, and retreated to another part of the house;  but one thing I do know:  those wagoners camped in the lane near the house.

As night came on I saw that the uneasiness of Mrs. M'D------- increased.  She would go to the door and look toward Eufaula, uttering many nervous sighs.  I suspected the cause, though I did not know that her husband loved "sperrits."  Some time during the night I heard a crowd coming in at the gate.  One peculiar voice, in short sentences, kept up a continual din, upbraiding and cursing "ole John fur gittin so ongentlemanly dog drunk."  Soon as the lady heard that, she understood it, and covered her face in her hands and sighed deeply.  Then came the clambering of five or six men in at the door, no one speaking but that reproachful sententious voice.

I left and went into another room.  Soon that tormenting voice, which I soon learned was Ham Rachel's, sang out,

"Here, boys, put the ole drunkard fool in the bed.  Ef Ham Rachedl hadn't a brought him home,he'd a now a bin a-lyin' in the streets of Eufauly, ur lyin' along the road, a-keepin' company with hogs.  The ole cuss, he nuver can go to Eufauly 'thout gittin' full as a bee on chamber-lye, though Ham Rachel is allers 'zortin' him like a preacher not to fill his cussed guts so full.  Here Mrs. M'D------," addressing himself to the lady, "here is yer old, poor, unfortinate husband, which Ham Rachel has had the goodness to fetch home so offen agin and agin.  The lord on'y knows how offen Ham will have ter fetch him home yit.  Some ov these times, when Ham Rachel ain't about, ole Nick will git him, and will pour hot lead down his cussed throat instid o' liquor.  Ham won't go down to ole Nick's deadnin to see ter him," etc., etc.

Thus went on Ham Rachel almost endlessly.  All the difference I could see was "ole John" was "a few" the drunkest "Injun" in the crowd that accompanied him home.

I saw I was caught in a bad box, and resolved to make the best of it.  My course was soon determined upon;  I would have nothing to do with the crowd, and would have nothing to say to them;  I would keep my own room.  With this resolution I went to the table.  "Ole John's" attendants must have their suppers;  they were entitled to it, for they had brought the old man home.  Ham Rachel, being "chief cook and bottlewasher" of the crowd, must, of course, have his supper.

After grace was said, "God bless us and ur vittuls," ham acting parson, being all hungry, we attacked the table with great energy.  At the first assault there was no politeness displayed in helping each other.  Ham generalized thus:

"Ev'ry man fur hisself, and God for all.  Help yerself, stranger;  you look like you mout be a man what can weed yer own row, clean at that.  I dun-no whar yer live, but down here in these piny woods uvry man waits on hisself."

Nothing more was said till the edge of our appetites was blunted; but Ham all the time kept casting his inquisitive, restless eyes upon me, trying to read me like a book.  At last he grew a little polite, and handed me a plate of fried yam potatoes.

"Take some 'taters, stranger;  mighty plenty down here in these sand-hills.  The on'y adjections Ham Rachel has to 'um, they make him a little too cholicified;  but a little number six will bring the wind from you with a dreadful racket.  My old 'omun allers uses yerbs, but yerbs ain't strong enough fur Ham Rachel.

On we went with our heavy assaults upon the table, demolishing whole dishes, "smitin' them with the aige ov the soord," as Ham expressed it.

"Stranger," said Ham, "take some butter;  that's half ur livin' in this cattle country.  It would be mighty tight times with us here ef it warn't fur milk and butter, cowpeas and yam 'taters.  We'd look like the peaked eend uv nothin';  though the murrin's bin mighty bad among cattle lately;  but Ham Rachel has great reasons to be thankful, fur he hain't lost more'n twenty-five ur thirty head, big and little.

We "swept the platter," and supper ended.  I went to my room, determined to maintain my dignity and secrecy, hard as Ham was trying to read me.  Ham followed, determined to take me prisoner, read my history, and get my whereabouts, latitude and longitude.  We sat down;  I purposely looked mum and dignified.  Ham's curiosity was aroused;  he could bear it no longer. 

"Stranger," said he, "you're too durned stiff and pertic'ler.  Ham Rachel loves fur a man to be as plain as an old shoe, and as thick as cow-peas in thar hull.  I've got to know suthin' about yer.  When Ham Rachel (I wish you knowed him) begins a thing, he carries it through, ur breaks the swingle-tree."

This was prefatory;  here comes the main attack:

Ham.  Ef I mout be so bold, whar do you live, stranger?

Stranger.  I "mout" live in New York, New Orleans, Mobile, or Montgomery, or any where else.  That's my business.

Ham.  By golly!  that's durned smart.  But, stranger, that answer don't co-robber-rate to yer looks.  That ain't you.  Ham Rachel won't answer a stranger that a-way.  But I'll try yer agin, sence ye'r so ding snappish on that pint.  Ef I mout be so bold, what sort o' biz'ness do yer foller, stranger?

Stranger.  That's too bold;  but since you must know, it is my "biz'ness" to follow my nose --- a pretty long one at that, you see.

Ham.  Wusser and wusser.  Durn it, I'll drap you.  You're as snappish as a par o' sheep-shears.

Ham left, and went to the camp of the wagoners, who all the time had kept up every variety of noise, laughter, and vulgar witticisms.  He had gone but a few minutes when "ole John" became very sick, and commenced throwing up his "rot-gut whisky."  The throes were terribly painful;  a human Vesuvius was in dreadful volcanic action.  At every throe the lava would fall upon the floor like a dashing cataract, accompanied with deep-toned groans.  As the action in the crater went on in rapid succession, it deepened and widened, and the streams of lava became more overwhelming and noisy. The bed creaked loudly, and every eruption looked as if it would throw him head foremost out of his resting-place.

Ham heard the noise of the volcano, and thought he would now lead the stranger out in conversation.  He came running into my room with gestures the most wild and frantic, and burst forth:

"Stranger!  stranger!  do yer hear that old devil pukin' out his innards?  I wouldn't keer a dried-apple durn ef he would puke hisself inside outurds.  He nuver will lister ter Ham Rachel, which nuver was cotch in sich a fix.  Ham drinks his dram and pays his bob in all licker crowds,but he allers travels and keeps what he 'posits in his innards.  He loves licker too well to be throwin' it away like ole John;  besides, he's too savin' a man ter be wastin' his vittuls in that a-way.  He may puke up his stockin's afore I'll go a-near him.  Poor Miss M'D------!  She'd no biz'ness a-marryin' --- a 'omun ov her age --- marryin' sich a dried-up ole cracklin'."

I still maintained my gravity, and Ham left and went to the noisy wagoners, who kept up their infernal din.  The rest of the company --- four --- who came home with "ole John" and Ham, had lain down on pallets, and were running against each other in the snoring line as if some great prize were staked.  No renowned artist, graphic pen nor gifted music composer can describe the struggles and contests of these four rival snorers;  of course, I shall not attempt it.

Before Ham left he gave them a blast thus:

"What the devil are you arter here?  a'sawin' gourds, grindin' coffee, filin' saws, beatin' tin pans, blowin' horns, beatin' drums, blowin' fifes, shootin' pistols, and so forth, and so forth, breakin' the stranger ov his rest?  I'd have a little breedin'."

I lay down about midnight, exposed to the cross-fire of three discordant batteries --- the snorers, the wagoners, and the groanings of "ole John" --- my nerves being none the better for the contiguity.  I dozed a little, but was soon roused by a new sound.  It was at the wagoners' camp.  It was the voice, tones and intonations of a Hard-shell Baptist preacher.  The old "heavenly tone" rang loudly "in the stilly night."  It had the suck-in and the blow-out of the breath, the uh! and the ah!

What!  I thought I, has some Greatheart of a preacher found those scapegraces and commenced a thundering sermon upon them?  "Give it to thick and heavy," said I to myself.

I was not long in suspense, for here came Ham running into the room (a dim light was burning), puffing and blowing, with eyes and hands upturned toward heaven with holy horror and indignation.

"Stranger! stranger!  O stranger!"  he shouted, "do you hear that?  That's no preacher, stranger;  they're on'y a-mockin' preachin'.  They're mockin' old Eldridge, who used ter hold forth in these deadnins, but run away and went to Texas.  Afore he run away he baptized these very rascals who is a-mockin' him.  Ham Rachel seen it with these peepers o' his, and what he sees he sees.  I've hearn 'um shout, sing hymns and sperritul songs with ole Eldridge.  Durn ole Eldridge!  (Lord forgive Ham!), he's no bettre nur them, but that's no reason fur them to make fun o' religion.  Ham Rachel (poor devil!) is no better nur he ought to be;  but, thanks ter Jubiter, he nuver made fun o' religion.  Lord a massy on us, stranger!  do yer hear 'um at it yit?  I'm afeered the yeth will open her bowills and swaller 'um up, like it done Korfum, Datum, and Byhum in the willerness.  Ham Rachel's not a-gwine a-near 'um agin this night.  Ham don't intend to be revolved in thar drefful catistrough;  he'll fly up to roost right here."

Down he lay on one of the pallets, and was soon contending for the prize among the snorers.  About this time the preacher at the camp ended his services, and all went to sleep and to snoring except "ole John" and myself.  "Ole John" kept up a groaning all night.

In the morning we were all a stupid set --- scarcely had energy to wash dirty hands and faces --- until the jugs were resorted to.  "Ole John" and I fared the worst:  he was too sick to drink, and I was a rigid teetotaller.

Breakfast came on.  The attack on the table was feeble compared with the assault the evening before.  On leaving, all were "dead-heads" except myself.  The rest had paid their way by bringing "ole John" home.  I paid my "fare" and left, but not alone.  Not I.  It has never been my destiny, if there is a bore in reach, he will find me, and cling to me like one's shadow.

While paying my bill, Ham shouldered his two jugs and prepared for traveling.

"Stranger," he said, "the roads forks jist down yender;  one goes to Eufauly, and t'other by Ham Rachel's.  As Ham's a-gwine home, he'll go that fur with yer, and show yer the right road."

Suiting action to words, off he "piked" for the gate.  I mounted my horse, which had fared better than his master, and on we went, Ham all the way letting fly a diarrhoea of words and sentences, till we arrived at the "fork" of Ham's road.  Ham halted.  I then took a good parting look at him.  There he stood, a lean, gaunt-looking specimen of freakish humanity, about five feet eight inches high, stoop-shouldered, long-armed, and knock-kneed, with a peaked dish face, little black restless eyes, long keen nose, and big ears.  His dress was cotton pants, dyed black with copperas and maple bark, a coarse cotton shirt, collar large and open, no vest, coat, nor socks.  His hat was old, broad-brimmed, and slouched down over his shoulders behind, and turned up before. His pants were "gallused" to their utmost capacity, leaving considerable space between his knees and the tops of his old brogan shoes;  not having on "drawers," of course the skin was exposed.  His two jugs were part of his dress.  They hung across his shoulders, before and behind, suspended to a wide black greasy leather strap, nearly down to his knees before and his calves behind.  Thus this strange figure stood before me, independent as a wood-sawyer, and made his parting speech:

"Stranger," said Ham, "that's the Eufauly road.  But listen" (pointing down the road).  "Do yer hear that cow-bell?  Thar ain't nur two hundred cattle arter that bell.  That's Ham Rachel's cow-bell, and them's is cattle' (giving me a significant look and wink).  "Stranger, give out yer Eufauly trip to-day, and go home with Ham Rachel, and stay a long week.  He can treat yer like a king on the best these deadnins affords.  Do yer see these jugs?  then thar's more in Eufauly.  Thar's plenty ov fiddles, gals, and boys 'bout here.  I don't know whether ye'r married ur not:  no odds;  yer wife won't know it, and the gals won't keer a durn.  You may sing,pray, dance, drink, ur do any thing else at Ham Rachel's.  He's none ov yer hide-bound, long-faced cattle, which strains at gnats and swallers camels, as ole Eldridge --- durn him! --- allers said in his preachin'.  Come, stranger, the world wasn't made in a day --- took six, I think --- come go wi' me."

"I thank yo kindly, sir,"  I replied.  "Your generosity is great;  but my business is quite pressing, and I must be going.  Good-morning to you, sir;  I am much obliged."

"Good-by, stranger," replied Ham.  "The Lord be wi' you.  You'll find but few sich men in yer travils as Ham Rachel."

Ham took his road and I took mine, and that is the last I have seen or heard of him.

  THE END.

 

 

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