Story type: Literature
Durin’ war times the gorillas hed torn up most uv the cypress ties an’ used ’em for kindlin’ an’ stove wood, an’ the result wuz that when the war wuz over there wuz n’t anythink left uv the Han’bul ‘nd St. Jo but the rollin’ stock ‘nd the two streaks uv rails from one end uv the road to the other. In the spring uv ’67 I hed to go out into Kansas; and takin’ the Han’bul ‘nd St. Jo at Palmyry Junction, I wuz n’t long in findin’ out that the Han’bul ‘nd St. Jo railroad wuz jist about the wust cast of rollin’ prairer I ever struck.
There wuz one bunk left when I boarded the sleepin’-car, and I hed presence uv mind ’nuff to ketch on to it. It wuz then just about dusk, an’ the nigger that sort uv run things in the car sez to me: “Boss,” sez he, “I ‘ll have to get you to please not to snore to-night, but to be uncommon quiet.”
“What for?” sez I. “Hain’t I paid my two dollars, an’ hain’t I entitled to all the luxuries uv the outfit?”
Then the nigger leant over an’ told me that Colonel Elijah Gates, one uv the directors uv the road, an’ the richest man in Marion County, wuz aboard, an’ it wuz one uv the rules uv the company not to do anythink to bother him or get him to sell his stock.
The nigger pointed out Colonel Gates, ‘nd I took a look at him as he sot readin’ the “Palmyry Spectator.” He wuz one of our kind uv people–long, raw-boned, ‘nd husky. He looked to be about sixty–may be not quite on to sixty. He wuz n’t bothered with much hair onto his head, ‘nd his beard was shaved, all except two rims or fringes uv it that ran down the sides uv his face ‘nd met underneath his chin. This fringe filled up his neck so thet he did n’t hev to wear no collar, ‘nd he had n’t no jewelry about him excep’ a big carnelian bosom pin that hed the picture uv a woman’s head on it in white. His specs sot well down on his nose, ‘nd I could see his blue eyes over ’em–small eyes, but kind ur good-natured. Between his readin’ uv his paper ‘nd his eatin’ plug terbacker he kep’ toler’ble busy till come bedtime. The rest on us kep’ as quiet as we could, for we knew it wuz an honor to ride in the same sleepin’-car with the richest man in Marion County ‘nd a director uv the Han’bul ‘nd St. Jo to boot.
Along ’bout eight o’clock the colonel reckoned he ‘d tumble into bed. When he ‘d drawed his boots ‘nd hung up his coat ‘nd laid in a fresh hunk uv nat’ral leaf, he crawled into the best bunk, ‘nd presently we heerd him sleepin’. There wuz nuthin’ else for the rest uv us to do but to foller suit, ‘nd we did.
It must have been about an hour later–say along about Prairer City–that a woman come aboard with a baby. There war n’t no bunk for her, but the nigger allowed that she might set back near the stove, for the baby ‘peared to be kind ov sick-like, ‘nd the woman looked like she had been cryin’. Whether it wuz the jouncin’ uv the car, or whether the young one wuz hungry or hed a colic into it, I did n’t know, but anyhow the train had n’t pulled out uv Prairer City afore the baby began to take on. The nigger run back as fast as he could, ‘nd told the young woman that she ‘d have to keep that baby quiet because Colonel ‘Lijy Gates, one uv the directors uv the road, wuz in the car ‘nd wunt be disturbed. The young woman caught up the baby scart-like, ‘nd talked soothin’ to it, ‘nd covered its little face with her shawl, ‘nd done all them things thet women do to make babies go to sleep.
But the baby would cry, and, in spite of all the young woman ‘nd the nigger could do, Colonel Elijah Gates heard the baby cryin’, and so he waked up. First his two blue yarn socks come through the curtains, ‘nd then his long legs ‘nd long body ‘nd long face hove into sight. He come down the car to the young woman, ‘nd looked at her over his specs. Did n’t seem to be the least bit mad; jest solemn ‘nd bizness like.
“My dear madam,” sez he to the young woman, “you must do sumpin’ to keep that child quiet. These people have all paid for their bunks, ‘nd they are entitled to a good night’s sleep. Of course I know how ‘t is with young children–will cry sometimes–have raised ‘leven uv ’em myself, ‘nd know, all about ’em. But as a director uv the Han’-bul ‘nd St. Jo I ‘ve got to pertect the rights of these other folks. So jist keep the baby quiet as you kin.”
Now, there war n’t nothin’ cross in the colonel’s tone; the colonel wuz as kind ‘nd consid’rit as could be expected uv a man who hed so much responsibility a-restin’ onto him. But the young woman was kind uv nervous, ‘nd after the colonel went back ‘nd got into his bunk the young woman sniffled and worrited and seemed like she had lost her wits, ‘nd the baby kep’ cryin’ jist as hard as ever.
Waal, there wuz n’t much sleepin’ to be done in that car, for what with the baby cryin’, ‘nd the young woman a-sayin’, “Oh, dear!” ‘nd “Oh, my!” and the nigger a-prancin’ round like the widder bewitched–with all this goin’ on, sleep wuz out uv the question. Folks began to wake up ‘nd put their heads outern their bunks to see what wuz the doggone matter. This made things pleasanter for the young woman. The colonel stood it as long as he could, and then he got up a second time ‘nd come down the car ‘nd looked at the young woman over his specs.
“Now, as I wuz tellin’ you afore,” sez he, “I hain’t makin’ no complaint uv myself, for I ‘ve raised a family of ‘leven children, ‘nd I know all about ’em. But these other folks here in the car have paid for a good night’s sleep, ‘nd it ‘s my duty as a director uv the Han’bul ‘nd St. Jo to see that they get it. Seems to me like you ought to be able to keep that child quiet–you can’t make me believe that there’s any use for a child to be carryin’ on so. Sumpin ‘s hurtin’ it–I know sumpin ‘s hurtin’ it by the way it cries. Now, you look ‘nd see if there ain’t a pin stickin’ into it somewhere; I ‘ve raised ‘leven children, ‘nd that ‘s jist the way they used to cry when there wuz a pin stickin’ em.”
He reckoned he ‘d find things all right this time, ‘nd he went back to his bunk feelin’ toler’ble satisfied with himself. But the young woman could n’t find no pin stickin’ the baby, ‘nd, no matter how much she stewed and worrited, the baby kep’ right on cryin’, jest the same. Holy smoke! but how that baby did cry.
Now, I reckoned that the colonel would be gettin’ almighty mad if this thing kep’ up much longer. A man may raise ‘leven children as easy as rollin’ off ‘n a log, ‘nd yet the twelfth one, that is n’t his at all, may break him. There is ginerally a last straw, even when it comes to the matter uv children.
So when the colonel riz feet foremost for the third time outern his bunk that night–or, I should say, mornin’, for it was mighty near mornin’ now–we looked for hail Columby.
“Look a-here, my good woman,” sez he to the young woman with the baby, “as I wuz tellin’ you afore, you must do sumpin to keep that child quiet. It ‘ll never do to keep all these folks awake like this. They ‘ve paid for a good night’s sleep, ‘nd it ‘s my duty as a director uv the Han’bul ‘nd St. Jo to pertest ag’in’ this disturbance. I ‘ve raised a family uv ‘leven children, ‘nd I know, as well as I know anythink, that that child is hungry. No child ever cries like that when it is n’t hungry, so I insist on your nursin’ it ‘nd givin’ us peace ‘nd quiet.”
Then the young woman began to sniffle.
“Law me, sir,” sez the young woman, “I ain’t the baby’s mother–I ‘m only just tendin’ it.”
The colonel got pretty mad then; his face got red ‘nd his voice kind uv trembled–he wuz so mad.
“Where is its mother?” sez the colonel. “Why is n’t she here takin’ care uv this hungry ‘nd cryin’ child like she ought to be?”
“She ‘s in the front car, sir,” sez the young woman, chokin’ up. “She ‘s in the front car–in a box, dead; we ‘re takin’ the body ‘nd the baby back home.”
Now what would you or me have done–what would any man have done then ‘nd there? Jest what the colonel done.
The colonel did n’t wait for no second thought; he jest reached out his big bony hands ‘nd he sez, “Young woman, gi’ me that baby”–sez it so quiet ‘nd so gentle like that seemed like it wuz the baby’s mother that wuz a-speakin’.
The colonel took the baby, and–now, may be you won’t believe me–the colonel held that baby ‘nd rocked it in his arms ‘nd talked to it like it had been his own child. And the baby seemed to know that it lay ag’in’ a lovin’ heart, for, when it heerd the ol’ man’s kind voice ‘nd saw his smilin’ face ‘nd felt the soothin’ rockin’ uv his arms, the baby stopped its grievin’ ‘nd cryin’, ‘nd cuddled up close to the colonel’s breast, ‘nd begun to coo ‘nd laff.
The colonel called the nigger. “Jim,” sez he, “you go ahead ‘nd tell the conductor to stop the train at the first farm-house. We ‘ve got to have some milk for this child–some warm milk with sugar into it; I hain’t raised a family uv ‘leven children for nothin’.”
The baby did n’t cry no more that night; leastwise we did n’t hear it if it did cry. And what if we had heerd it? Blessed if I don’t think every last one of us would have got up to help tend that lonesome little thing.
That wuz more ‘n twenty years ago, but I kin remember the last words I heerd the colonel say: “No matter if it does cry,” sez he. “It don’t make no more noise than a cricket, nohow; ‘nd I reckon that being a director uv the road I kin stop the train ‘nd let off anybody that don’t like the way the Han’bul ‘nd St. Jo does business.”
Twenty years ago! Colonel Elijah Gates is sleepin’ in the Palmyry buryin’-ground; likely as not the baby has growed up–leastwise the Han’bul ‘nd St. Jo has; everythink is different now–everythink has changed–everythink except humin natur’, ‘nd that is the same, it allus has been, and it allus will be, I reckon.