The Finding Of Zach by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Story type: Literature

The rooms of the “Banner” Club–an organization of social intent, but with political streaks–were a blaze of light that Christmas Eve night. On the lower floor some one was strumming on the piano, and upstairs, where the “ladies” sat, and where the Sunday smokers were held, a man was singing one of the latest coon songs. The “Banner” always got them first, mainly because the composers went there, and often the air of the piece itself had been picked out or patched together, with the help of the “Banner’s” piano, before the song was taken out for somebody to set the “‘companiment” to it.

The proprietor himself had just gone into the parlor to see that the Christmas decorations were all that he intended them to be when a door opened and an old man entered the room. In one hand he carried an ancient carpetbag, which he deposited on the floor, while he stared around at the grandeur of the place. He was a typical old uncle of the South, from the soles of his heavy brogans to the shiny top of his bald pate, with its fringe of white wool. It was plain to be seen that he was not a denizen of the town, or of that particular quarter. They do not grow old in the Tenderloin. He paused long enough to take in the appointments of the place, then, suddenly remembering his manners, he doffed his hat and bowed with old-fashioned courtesy to the splendid proprietor.

“Why, how’do, uncle!” said the genial Mr. Turner, extending his hand. “Where did you stray from?”

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“Howdy, son, howdy,” returned the old man gravely. “I hails f’om Miss’ippi myse’f, a mighty long ways f’om hyeah.”

His voice and old-time intonation were good to listen to, and Mr. Turner’s thoughts went back to an earlier day in his own life. He was from Maryland himself. He drew up a chair for the old man and took one himself. A few other men passed into the room and stopped to look with respectful amusement at the visitor. He was such a perfect bit of old plantation life and so obviously out of place in a Tenderloin club room.

“Well, uncle, are you looking for a place to stay?” pursued Turner.

“Not ‘zackly, honey; not ‘zackly. I come up hyeah a-lookin’ fu’ a son o’ mine dat been away f’om home nigh on to five years. He live hyeah in Noo Yo’k, an’ dey tell me whaih I ‘quiahed dat I li’ble to fin’ somebody hyeah dat know him. So I jes’ drapped in.”

“I know a good many young men from the South. What’s your son’s name?”

“Well, he named aftah my ol’ mastah, Zachariah Priestley Shackelford.”

“Zach Shackelford!” exclaimed some of the men, and there was a general movement among them, but a glance from Turner quieted the commotion.

“Why, yes, I know your son,” he said. “He’s in here almost every night, and he’s pretty sure to drop in a little later on. He has been singing with one of the colored companies here until a couple of weeks ago.”

“Heish up; you don’t say so. Well! well! well! but den Zachariah allus did have a mighty sweet voice. He tu’k hit aftah his mammy. Well, I sholy is hopin’ to see dat boy. He was allus my favorite, aldough I reckon a body ain’ got no livin’ right to have favorites among dey chilluns. But Zach was allus sich a good boy.”

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The men turned away. They could not remember a time since they had known Zach Shackelford when by any stretch of imagination he could possibly have been considered good. He was known as one of the wildest young bucks that frequented the club, with a deft hand at cards and dice and a smooth throat for whisky. But Turner gave them such a defiant glance that they were almost ready to subscribe to anything the old man might say.

“Dis is a mighty fine place you got hyeah. Hit mus’ be a kind of a hotel or boa’din’ house, ain’t hit?”

“Yes, something like.”

“We don’ have nuffin’ lak dis down ouah way. Co’se, we’s jes’ common folks. We wo’ks out in de fiel’, and dat’s about all we knows–fiel’, chu’ch an’ cabin. But I’s mighty glad my Zach ‘s gittin’ up in de worl’. He nevah were no great han’ fu’ wo’k. Hit kin’ o’ seemed to go agin his natur’. You know dey is folks lak dat.”

“Lots of ’em, lots of ’em,” said Mr. Turner.

The crowd of men had been augmented by a party from out of the card room, and they were listening intently to the old fellow’s chatter. They felt now that they ought to laugh, but somehow they could not, and the twitching of their careless faces was not from suppressed merriment.

The visitor looked around at them, and then remarked: “My, what a lot of boa’dahs you got.”

“They don’t all stay here,” answered Turner seriously; “some of them have just dropped in to see their friends.”

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“Den I ‘low Zach’ll be drappin’ in presently. You mus’ ‘scuse me fu’ talkin’ ’bout him, but I’s mighty anxious to clap my eyes on him. I’s been gittin’ on right sma’t dese las’ two yeahs, an’ my ol’ ooman she daid an’ gone, an’ I kin’ o’ lonesome, so I jes’ p’omised mysef dis Crismus de gif’ of a sight o’ Zach. Hit do look foolish fu’ a man ez ol’ ez me to be a runnin’ ‘roun’ de worl’ a spen’in’ money dis away, but hit do seem so ha’d to git Zach home.”

“How long are you going to be with us?”

“Well, I ‘specs to stay all o’ Crismus week.”

“Maybe–” began one of the men. But Turner interrupted him. “This gentleman is my guest. Uncle,” turning to the old man, “do you ever–would you–er. I’ve got some pretty good liquor here, ah–“

Zach’s father smiled a sly smile. “I do’ know, suh,” he said, crossing his leg high. “I’s Baptis’ mys’f, but ‘long o’ dese Crismus holidays I’s right fond of a little toddy.”

A half dozen eager men made a break for the bar, but Turner’s uplifted hand held them. He was an autocrat in his way.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said, “but I think I remarked some time ago that Mr. Shackelford was my guest.” And he called the waiter.

All the men had something and tapped rims with the visitor.

“‘Pears to me you people is mighty clevah up hyeah; ‘tain’ no wondah Zachariah don’ wan’ to come home.”

Just then they heard a loud whoop outside the door, and a voice broke in upon them singing thickly, “Oh, this spo’tin’ life is surely killin’ me.” The men exchanged startled glances. Turner looked at them, and there was a command in his eye. Several of them hurried out, and he himself arose, saying: “I’ve got to go out for a little while, but you just make yourself at home, uncle. You can lie down right there on that sofa and push that button there–see, this way–if you want some more toddy. It shan’t cost you anything.”

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“Oh, I’ll res’ myself, but I ain’ gwine sponge on you dat away. I got some money,” and the old man dug down into his long pocket. But his host laid a hand on his arm.

“Your money’s no good up here.”

“Wh–wh–why, I thought dis money passed any whah in de Nunited States!” exclaimed the bewildered old man.

“That’s all right, but you can’t spend it until we run out.”

“Oh! Why, bless yo’ soul, suh, you skeered me. You sho’ is clevah.”

Turner went out and came upon his emissaries, where they had halted the singing Zach in the hallway, and were trying to get into his muddled brain that his father was there.

“Wha’sh de ol’ man doin’ at de ‘Banner,’ gittin’ gay in his ol’ days? Hic.”

That was enough for Turner to hear. “Look a-here,” he said, “don’t you get flip when you meet your father. He’s come a long ways to see you, and I’m damned if he shan’t see you right. Remember you’re stoppin’ at my house as long as the old man stays, and if you make a break while he’s here I’ll spoil your mug for you. Bring him along, boys.”

Zach had started in for a Christmas celebration, but they took him into an empty room. They sent to the drug store and bought many things. When the young man came out an hour later he was straight, but sad.

“Why, Pap,” he said when he saw the old man, “I’ll be–“

“Hem!” said Turner.

“I’ll be blessed!” Zach finished.

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The old man looked him over. “Tsch! tsch! tsch! Dis is a Crismus gif’ fu’ sho’!” His voice was shaking. “I’s so glad to see you, honey; but chile, you smell lak a ‘pothac’ay shop.”

“I ain’t been right well lately,” said Zach sheepishly.

To cover his confusion Turner called for eggnog.

When it came the old man said: “Well, I’s Baptis’ myse’f, but seein’ it’s Crismus–“

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