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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Free Joe and the Rest of the World

By Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908)

[Free Joe, and Other Georgian Sketches. 1888.]

THE NAME of Free Joe strikes humorously upon the ear of memory. It is impossible to say why, for he was the humblest, the simplest, and the most serious of all God’s living creatures, sadly lacking in all those elements that suggest the humorous. It is certain, moreover, that in 1850 the sober-minded citizens of the little Georgian village of Hillsborough were not inclined to take a humorous view of Free Joe, and neither his name nor his presence provoked a smile. He was a black atom, drifting hither and thither without an owner, blown about by all the winds of circumstance, and given over to shiftlessness.

The problems of one generation are the paradoxes of a succeeding one, particularly if war, or some such incident, intervenes to clarify the atmosphere and strengthen the understanding. Thus, in 1850, Free Joe represented not only a problem of large concern, but, in the watchful eyes of Hillsborough, he was the embodiment of that vague and mysterious danger that seemed to be forever lurking on the outskirts of slavery, ready to sound a shrill and ghostly signal in the impenetrable swamps, and steal forth under the midnight stars to murder, rapine, and pillage—a danger always threatening, and yet never assuming shape; intangible, and yet real; impossible, and yet not improbable. Across the serene and smiling front of safety, the pale outlines of the awful shadow of insurrection sometimes fell. With this invisible panorama as a background, it was natural that the figure of Free Joe, simple and humble as it was, should assume undue proportions. Go where he would, do what he might, he could not escape the finger of observation and the kindling eye of suspicion. His lightest words were noted, his slightest actions marked.

Under all the circumstances it was natural that his peculiar condition should reflect itself in his habits and manners. The slaves laughed loudly day by day, but Free Joe rarely laughed. The slaves sang at their work and danced at their frolics, but no one ever heard Free Joe sing or saw him dance. There was something painfully plaintive and appealing in his attitude, something touching in his anxiety to please. He was of the friendliest nature, and seemed to be delighted when he could amuse the little children who had made a playground of the public square. At times he would please them by making his little dog Dan perform all sorts of curious tricks, or he would tell them quaint stories of the beasts of the field and birds of the air; and frequently he was coaxed into relating the story of his own freedom. That story was brief, but tragical.

In the year of our Lord 1840, when a negro-speculator of a sportive turn of mind reached the little village of Hillsborough on his way to the Mississippi region, with a caravan of likely negroes of both sexes, he found much to interest him. In that day and at that time there were a number of young men in the village who had not bound themselves over to repentance for the various misdeeds of the flesh. To these young men the negro-speculator (Major Frampton was his name) proceeded to address himself. He was a Virginian, he declared; and, to prove the statement, he referred all the festively inclined young men of Hillsborough to a barrel of peach-brandy in one of his covered wagons. In the minds of these young men there was less doubt in regard to the age and quality of the brandy than there was in regard to the negro-trader’s birthplace. Major Frampton might or might not have been born in the Old Dominion,—that was a matter for consideration and inquiry,—but there could be no question as to the mellow pungency of the peach-brandy.

In his own estimation, Major Frampton was one of the most accomplished of men. He had summered at the Virginia Springs; he had been to Philadelphia, to Washington, to Richmond, to Lynchburg, and to Charleston, and had accumulated a great deal of experience which he found useful. Hillsborough was hid in the woods of Middle Georgia, and its general aspect of innocence impressed him. He looked on the young men who had shown their readiness to test his peach-brandy as overgrown country boys who needed to be introduced to some of the arts and sciences he had at his command. Thereupon the major pitched his tents, figuratively speaking, and became, for the time being, a part and parcel of the innocence that characterized Hillsborough. A wiser man would doubtless have made the same mistake.

The little village possessed advantages that seemed to be providentially arranged to fit the various enterprises that Major Frampton had in view. There was the auction-block in front of the stuccoed court-house, if he desired to dispose of a few of his negroes; there was a quarter-track, laid out to his hand and in excellent order, if he chose to enjoy the pleasures of horse-racing; there were secluded pine thickets within easy reach, if he desired to indulge in the exciting pastime of cock-fighting; and various lonely and unoccupied rooms in the second story of the tavern, if he cared to challenge the chances of dice or cards.

Major Frampton tried them all with varying luck, until he began his famous game of poker with Judge Alfred Wellington, a stately gentleman with a flowing white beard and mild blue eyes that gave him the appearance of a benevolent patriarch. The history of the game in which Major Frampton and Judge Alfred Wellington took part is something more than a tradition in Hillsborough, for there are still living three or four men who sat around the table and watched its progress. It is said that at various stages of the game Major Frampton would destroy the cards with which they were playing, and send for a new pack, but the result was always the same. The mild blue eyes of Judge Wellington, with few exceptions, continued to overlook “hands” that were invincible—a habit they had acquired during a long and arduous course of training from Saratoga to New Orleans. Major Frampton lost his money, his horses, his wagons, and all his negroes but one, his body-servant. When his misfortune had reached this limit, the major adjourned the game. The sun was shining brightly, and all nature was cheerful. It is said that the major also seemed to be cheerful. However this may be, he visited the court-house, and executed the papers that gave his body-servant his freedom. This being done, Major Frampton sauntered into a convenient pine thicket and blew out his brains.

The negro thus freed came to be known as Free Joe. Compelled, under the law, to choose a guardian, he chose Judge Wellington, chiefly because his wife Lucinda was among the negroes won from Major Frampton. For several years Free Joe had what may be called a jovial time. His wife Lucinda was well provided for, and he found it a comparatively easy matter to provide for himself; so that, taking all the circumstances into consideration, it is not matter for astonishment that he became somewhat shiftless.

When Judge Wellington died, Free Joe’s troubles began. The judge’s negroes, including Lucinda, went to his half-brother, a man named Calderwood, who was a hard master and a rough customer generally—a man of many eccentricities of mind and character. His neighbors had a habit of alluding to him as “Old Spite”; and the name seemed to fit him so completely that he was known far and near as “Spite” Calderwood. He probably enjoyed the distinction the name gave him; at any rate, he never resented it, and it was not often that he missed an opportunity to show that he deserved it. Calderwood’s place was two or three miles from the village of Hillsborough, and Free Joe visited his wife twice a week, Wednesday and Saturday nights.

One Sunday he was sitting in front of Lucinda’s cabin, when Calderwood happened to pass that way.

“Howdy, marster?” said Free Joe, taking off his hat.

“Who are you?” exclaimed Calderwood abruptly, halting and staring at the negro.

“I’m name’ Joe, marster. I’m Lucindy’s ole man.”

“Who do you belong to?”

“Marse John Evans is my gyardeen, marster.”

“Big name—gyardeen. Show your pass.”

Free Joe produced that document, and Calderwood read it aloud slowly, as if he found it difficult to get at the meaning:—

“To whom it may concern: This is to certify that the boy Joe Frampton has my permission to visit his wife Lucinda.”

This was dated at Hillsborough, and signed “John W. Evans.”

Calderwood read it twice, and then looked at Free Joe, elevating his eyebrows, and showing his discolored teeth.

“Some mighty big words in that there. Evans owns this place, I reckon. When’s he comin’ down to take hold?”

Free Joe fumbled with his hat. He was badly frightened.

“Lucindy say she speck you wouldn’t min’ my comin’, ’long ez I behave, marster.”

Calderwood tore the pass in pieces and flung it away.

“Don’t want no free niggers ’round here,” he exclaimed. “There’s the big road. It’ll carry you to town. Don’t let me catch you here no more. Now, mind what I tell you.”

Free Joe presented a shabby spectacle as he moved off with his little dog Dan slinking at his heels. It should be said in behalf of Dan, however, that his bristles were up, and that he looked back and growled. It may be that the dog had the advantage of insignificance, but it is difficult to conceive how a dog bold enough to raise his bristles under Calderwood’s very eyes could be as insignificant as Free Joe. But both the negro and his little dog seemed to give a new and more dismal aspect to forlornness as they turned into the road and went toward Hillsborough.

After this incident Free Joe appeared to have clearer ideas concerning his peculiar condition. He realized the fact that though he was free he was more helpless than any slave. Having no owner, every man was his master. He knew that he was the object of suspicion, and therefore all his slender resources (ah! how pitifully slender they were!) were devoted to winning, not kindness and appreciation, but toleration; all his efforts were in the direction of mitigating the circumstances that tended to make his condition so much worse than that of the negroes around him—negroes who had friends because they had masters.

So far as his own race was concerned, Free Joe was an exile. If the slaves secretly envied him his freedom (which is to be doubted, considering his miserable condition), they openly despised him, and lost no opportunity to treat him with contumely. Perhaps this was in some measure the result of the attitude which Free Joe chose to maintain toward them. No doubt his instinct taught him that to hold himself aloof from the slaves would be to invite from the whites the toleration which he coveted, and without which even his miserable condition would be rendered more miserable still.

His greatest trouble was the fact that he was not allowed to visit his wife; but he soon found a way out of this difficulty. After he had been ordered away from the Calderwood place, he was in the habit of wandering as far in that direction as prudence would permit. Near the Calderwood place, but not on Calderwood’s land, lived an old man named Micajah Staley, and his sister Becky Staley. These people were old and very poor. Old Micajah had a palsied arm and hand; but, in spite of this, he managed to earn a precarious living with his turning-lathe.

When he was a slave Free Joe would have scorned these representatives of a class known as poor white trash, but now he found them sympathetic and helpful in various ways. From the back door of their cabin he could hear the Calderwood negroes singing at night, and he sometimes fancied he could distinguish Lucinda’s shrill treble rising above the other voices. A large poplar grew in the woods some distance from the Staley cabin, and at the foot of this tree Free Joe would sit for hours with his face turned toward Calderwood’s. His little dog Dan would curl up in the leaves near by, and the two seemed to be as comfortable as possible.

One Saturday afternoon Free Joe, sitting at the foot of this friendly poplar, fell asleep. How long he slept, he could not tell; but when he awoke little Dan was licking his face, the moon was shining brightly, and Lucinda his wife stood before him laughing. The dog, seeing that Free Joe was asleep, had grown somewhat impatient, and he concluded to make an excursion to the Calderwood place on his own account. Lucinda was inclined to give the incident a twist in the direction of superstition.

“I ’uz settin’ down front er de fireplace,” she said, “cookin’ me some meat, w’en all of a sudden I year sumpin at de do’—scratch, scratch. I tuck’n tu’n de meat over, en make out I aint year it. Bimeby it come dar ’gin—scratch, scratch. I up en open de do’, I did, en, bless de Lord! dar wuz little Dan, en it look like ter me dat his ribs done grow tergeer. I gin ’im some bread, en den, w’en he start out, I tuck’n foller ’im, kaze, I say ter myse’f, maybe my nigger man mought be some’rs ’roun’. Dat ar little dog got sense, mon.”

Free Joe laughed and dropped his hand lightly on Dan’s head. For a long time after that he had no difficulty in seeing his wife. He had only to sit by the poplar tree until little Dan could run and fetch her. But after a while the other negroes discovered that Lucinda was meeting Free Joe in the woods, and information of the fact soon reached Calderwood’s ears. Calderwood was what is called a man of action. He said nothing; but one day he put Lucinda in his buggy and carried her to Macon, sixty miles away. He carried her to Macon and came back without her; and nobody in or around Hillsborough, or in that section, ever saw her again.

For many a night after that Free Joe sat in the woods and waited. Little Dan would run merrily off and be gone a long time, but he always came back without Lucinda. This happened over and over again. The “willis-whistlers” would call and call, like phantom huntsmen wandering on a far-off shore; the screech-owl would shake and shiver in the depths of the woods; the night-hawks, sweeping by on noiseless wings, would snap their beaks as though they enjoyed the huge joke of which Free Joe and little Dan were the victims; and the whip-poor-wills would cry to each other through the gloom. Each night seemed to be lonelier than the preceding, but Free Joe’s patience was proof against loneliness. There came a time, however, when little Dan refused to go after Lucinda. When Free Joe motioned him in the direction of the Calderwood place, he would simply move about uneasily and whine; then he would curl up in the leaves and make himself comfortable.

One night, instead of going to the poplar tree to wait for Lucinda, Free Joe went to the Staley cabin, and, in order to make his welcome good, as he expressed it, he carried with him an armful of fat-pine splinters. Miss Becky Staley had a great reputation in those parts as a fortune-teller, and the school-girls, as well as older people, often tested her powers in this direction, some in jest and some in earnest. Free Joe placed his humble offering of light-wood in the chimney-corner, and then seated himself on the steps, dropping his hat on the ground outside.

“Miss Becky,” he said presently, “whar in de name er gracious you reckon Lucindy is?”

“Well, the Lord he’p the nigger!” exclaimed Miss Becky, in a tone that seemed to reproduce, by some curious agreement of sight with sound, her general aspect of peakedness. “Well, the Lord he’p the nigger! haint you been a-seein’ her all this blessed time? She’s over at old Spite Calderwood’s, if she’s anywheres, I reckon.”

“No’m, dat I aint, Miss Becky. I aint seen Lucindy in now gwine on mighty nigh a mont’.”

“Well, it haint a-gwine to hurt you,” said Miss Becky, somewhat sharply. “In my day an’ time it wuz allers took to be a bad sign when niggers got to honeyin’ ’roun’ an’ gwine on.”

“Yessum,” said Free Joe, cheerfully assenting to the proposition—“yessum, dat’s so, but me an’ my ole ’oman, we ’uz raise tergeer, en dey aint bin many days w’en we ’uz ’way fum one ’n’er like we is now.”

“‘Maybe she’s up an’ took up wi’ some un else,” said Micajah Staley from the corner. “You know what the sayin’ is, ‘New master, new nigger.’”

“Dat’s so, dat’s de sayin’, but tain’t wid my ole ’oman like ’tis wid yuther niggers. Me en her wuz des natally raise up tergeer. Dey’s lots likelier niggers dan w’at I is,” said Free Joe, viewing his shabbiness with a critical eye, “but I knows Lucindy mos’ good ez I does little Dan dar—dat I does.”

There was no reply to this, and Free Joe continued:

“Miss Becky, I wish you please, ma’am, take en run yo’ kyards en see sump’n n’er ’bout Lucindy; kaze ef she sick, I’m gwine dar. Dey ken take en take me up en gimme a stroppin’, but I’m gwine dar.”

Miss Becky got her cards, but first she picked up a cup, in the bottom of which were some coffee-grounds. These she whirled slowly round and round, ending finally by turning the cup upside down on the hearth and allowing it to remain in that position.

“I’ll turn the cup first,” said Miss Becky, “and then I’ll run the cards and see what they say.”

As she shuffled the cards the fire on the hearth burned low, and in its fitful light the gray-haired, thin-featured woman seemed to deserve the weird reputation which rumor and gossip had given her. She shuffled the cards for some moments, gazing intently in the dying fire; then, throwing a piece of pine on the coals, she made three divisions of the pack, disposing them about in her lap. Then she took the first pile, ran the cards slowly through her fingers, and studied them carefully. To the first she added the second pile. The study of these was evidently not satisfactory. She said nothing, but frowned heavily; and the frown deepened as she added the rest of the cards until the entire fifty-two had passed in review before her. Though she frowned, she seemed to be deeply interested. Without changing the relative position of the cards, she ran them all over again. Then she threw a larger piece of pine on the fire, shuffled the cards afresh, divided them into three piles, and subjected them to the same careful and critical examination.

“I can’t tell the day when I’ve seed the cards run this a-way,” she said after a while. “What is an’ what aint, I’ll never tell you; but I know what the cards sez.”

“W’at does dey say, Miss Becky?” the negro inquired, in a tone the solemnity of which was heightened by its eagerness.

“They er runnin’ quare. These here that I’m a-lookin’ at,” said Miss Becky, “they stan’ for the past. Them there, they er the present; and the t’others, they er the future. Here’s a bundle,”—tapping the ace of clubs with her thumb,—“an’ here’s a journey as plain as the nose on a man’s face. Here’s Lucindy”——

“Whar she, Miss Becky?”

“Here she is—the queen of spades.”

Free Joe grinned. The idea seemed to please him immensely.

“Well, well, well!” he exclaimed. “Ef dat don’t beat my time! De queen er spades! W’en Lucindy year dat hit’ll tickle ’er, sho’!”

Miss Becky continued to run the cards back and forth through her fingers.

“Here’s a bundle an’ a journey, and here’s Lucindy. An’ here’s ole Spite Calderwood.”

She held the cards toward the negro and touched the king of clubs.

“De Lord he’p my soul!” exclaimed Free Joe with a chuckle. “De faver’s dar. Yesser, dat’s him! W’at de matter ’long wid all un um, Miss Becky?”

The old woman added the second pile of cards to the first, and then the third, still running them through her fingers slowly and critically. By this time the piece of pine in the fireplace had wrapped itself in a mantle of flame, illuminating the cabin and throwing into strange relief the figure of Miss Becky as she sat studying the cards. She frowned ominously at the cards and mumbled a few words to herself. Then she dropped her hands in her lap and gazed once more into the fire. Her shadow danced and capered on the wall and floor behind her, as if, looking over her shoulder into the future, it could behold a rare spectacle. After a while she picked up the cup that had been turned on the hearth. The coffee-grounds, shaken around, presented what seemed to be a most intricate map.

“Here’s the journey,” said Miss Becky; presently; “here’s the big road, here’s rivers to cross, here’s the bundle to tote.” She paused and sighed. “They haint no names writ here, an’ what it all means I’ll never tell you. Cajy, I wish you’d be so good as to han’ me my pipe.”

“I haint no hand wi’ the kyards,” said Cajy, as he handed the pipe, “but I reckon I can patch out your misinformation, Becky, bekaze the other day, whiles I was a-finishin’ up Mizzers Perdue’s rollin’-pin, I hearn a rattlin’ in the road. I looked out, an’ Spite Calderwood was a-drivin’ by in his buggy, an’ thar sot Lucindy by him. It’d in-about drapt out er my min’.”

Free Joe sat on the door-sill and fumbled at his hat, flinging it from one hand to the other.

“You aint see um gwine back, is you, Mars Cajy?” he asked after a while.

“Ef they went back by this road,” said Mr. Staley, with the air of one who is accustomed to weigh well his words, “it must ’a’ bin endurin’ of the time whiles I was asleep, bekaze I haint bin no furder from my shop than to yon bed.”

“Well, sir!” exclaimed Free Joe in an awed tone, which Mr. Staley seemed to regard as a tribute to his extraordinary powers of statement.

“Ef it’s my beliefs you want,” continued the old man, “I’ll pitch ’em at you fair and free. My beliefs is that Spite Calderwood is gone an’ took Lucindy outen the county. Bless your heart and soul! when Spite Calderwood meets the Old Boy in the road they’ll be a tumble scuffle. You mark what I tell you.”

Free Joe, still fumbling with his hat, rose and leaned against the door-facing. He seemed to be embarrassed. Presently he said:

“I speck I better be gittin’ ’long. Nex’ time I see Lucindy, I’m gwine tell ’er w’at Miss Becky say ’bout de queen er spades—dat I is. Ef dat don’t tickle ’er, dey ain’t no nigger ’oman never bin tickle’.”

He paused a moment, as though waiting for some remark or comment, some confirmation of misfortune, or, at the very least, some indorsement of his suggestion that Lucinda would be greatly pleased to know that she had figured as the queen of spades; but neither Miss Becky nor her brother said anything.

“One minnit ridin’ in the buggy ’longside er Mars Spite, en de nex’ high-falutin’ ’roun’ playin’ de queen er spades. Mon, deze yer nigger gals gittin’ up in de pictur’s; dey sholy is.”

With a brief “Good-night, Miss Becky, Mars Cajy,” Free Joe went out into the darkness, followed by little Dan. He made his way to the poplar, where Lucinda had been in the habit of meeting him, and sat down. He sat there a long time; he sat there until little Dan, growing restless, trotted off in the direction of the Calderwood place. Dozing against the poplar, in the gray dawn of the morning, Free Joe heard Spite Calderwood’s fox-hounds in full cry a mile away.

“Shoo!” he exclaimed, scratching his head, and laughing to himself, “dem ar dogs is des a-warmin’ dat old fox up.”

But it was Dan the hounds were after, and the little dog came back no more. Free Joe waited and waited, until he grew tired of waiting. He went back the next night and waited, and for many nights thereafter. His waiting was in vain, and yet he never regarded it as in vain. Careless and shabby as he was, Free Joe was thoughtful enough to have his theory. He was convinced that little Dan had found Lucinda, and that some night when the moon was shining brightly through the trees, the dog would rouse him from his dreams as he sat sleeping at the foot of the poplar tree, and he would open his eyes and behold Lucinda standing over him, laughing merrily as of old; and then he thought what fun they would have about the queen of spades.

How many long nights Free Joe waited at the foot of the poplar tree for Lucinda and little Dan no one can ever know. He kept no account of them, and they were not recorded by Micajah Staley nor by Miss Becky. The season ran into summer and then into fall. One night he went to the Staley cabin, cut the two old people an armful of wood, and seated himself on the door-steps, where he rested. He was always thankful—and proud, as it seemed—when Miss Becky gave him a cup of coffee, which she was sometimes thoughtful enough to do. He was especially thankful on this particular night.

“You er still layin’ off for to strike up wi’ Lucindy out thar in the woods, I reckon,” said Micajah Staley, smiling grimly. The situation was not without its humorous aspects.

“Oh, dey er comin’, Mars Cajy, dey er comin’, sho,” Free Joe replied. “I boun’ you dey’ll come; en w’en dey does come, I’ll des take en fetch um yer, whar you kin see um wid you own eyes, you en Miss Becky.”

“No,” said Mr. Staley, with a quick and emphatic gesture of disapproval. “Don’t! don’t fetch ’em anywheres. Stay right wi’ ’em as long as may be.”

Free Joe chuckled, and slipped away into the night, while the two old people sat gazing in the fire. Finally Micajah spoke:

“Look at that nigger; look at ’im. He’s pine-blank as happy now as a killdee by a mill-race. You can’t ’faze ’em. I’d in-about give up my t’other hand ef I could stan’ flat-footed an’ grin at trouble like that there nigger.”

“Niggers is niggers,” said Miss Becky, smiling grimly, “an’ you can’t rub it out; yit I lay I’ve seed a heap of white people lots meaner’n Free Joe. He grins,—an’ that’s nigger,—but I’ve ketched his under jaw a-trimblin’ when Lucindy’s name uz brung up. An’ I tell you,” she went on, bridling up a little, and speaking with almost fierce emphasis, “the Old Boy’s done sharpened his claws for Spite Calderwood. You’ll see it.”

“Me, Rebecca?” said Mr. Staley, hugging his palsied arm; “me? I hope not.”

“Well, you’ll know it then,” said Miss Becky, laughing heartily at her brother’s look of alarm.

The next morning Micajah Staley had occasion to go into the woods after a piece of timber. He saw Free Joe sitting at the foot of the poplar, and the sight vexed him somewhat.

“Git up from there,” he cried, “an’ go an’ arn your livin’. A mighty purty pass it’s come to, when great big buck niggers can lie a-snorin’ in the woods all day, when t’other folks is got to be up an’ a-gwine. Git up from there!”

Receiving no response, Mr. Staley went to Free Joe and shook him by the shoulder; but the negro made no response. He was dead. His hat was off, his head was bent, and a smile was on his face. It was as if he had bowed and smiled when death stood before him, humble to the last. His clothes were ragged; his hands were rough and callous; his shoes were literally tied together with strings; he was shabby in the extreme. A passer-by, glancing at him, could have no idea that such a humble creature had been summoned as a witness before the Lord God of Hosts.