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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

How the Meanest Man Got so Mean, and How Mean He Got

By Joseph Kirkland (1830–1894)

[Born in Geneva, N. Y., 1830. Died in Chicago, Ill., 1894. Zury: the Meanest Man in Spring County. 1887.]

EPHRAIM wanted Zury to marry, but it was with “a sharp eye to the main chance.” Property and personal service at no wages might both be secured by a judicious choice. Girls were not plenty, but at the Peddicombs’ there were three of marriageable age. Their place was only three miles from Prouder’s, and they were still the nearest neighbors. Mrs. Peddicomb had not long survived the birth of her three daughters. She died (as was and is common among farmers’ wives) at not much over thirty years of age, just when her life ought to have been in its prime.

She was called a “Come-gals kind of a woman” by neighbors; partly in ridicule of her enthusiasm, and partly in admiration of her energy. It was told of her that she would get up before light on Monday, “fly ’raound,” uncover the fire, hang on the kettle, and call up the ladder to the loft—

“Come gals! Dew git up ’n’ start in! To-day’s Monday, to-morrow’s Tuesday, ’n’ next day’s Wednesday; ’n’ then comes Thursday, Friday, ’n’ Saturday’—the hull week gone ’n’ nothin’ done.”

The two younger girls had been cared for by the oldest, and so had retained some girlish freshness and delicacy, but as for Mary (the caretaker after her mother’s death), she was “good-looking” only because she looked good.

On this marriage-subject Ephraim took occasion to speak to Zury.

“Mary Peddicomb, she’s a likely gal.”

“Mary? Why not S’manthy ’n’ Flory?”

“Oh, yes; they’re all right tew. Th’ ol’ man he’s got th’ best part of a section. Some stawk, tew; ’n’ th’ haouse ’n’ barn’s fust rate.”

“Ya-as. Ef th’ haouse ’n’ barn worn’t so good he’d have more stawk th’t ’d pay him right smart better’n th’ haouse ’n’ barn dooz.”

“Peddicomb ain’t like t’ marry ag’in. Mary she’ll have her sheer.”

“Any more’n th’ others?”

“Oh, no. All same. But I reck’n Mary she’d be more of a manager. She kin work! I’ve watched her ever sence she wuz knee-high to a hoppy-toad, ’n’ I tell ye she kin work!”

“Ef ye mean more manageable, ye mought’s well say so.”

“Wal, I dew ’llaow she’d be full ’s little likely t’ be uppish ’s th’ others.”

“Ye ’llaow’t humbly and humble goes t’gether?”

“Wal, yes; ’mongst the wimmin folks, substantially. Nothin’ sets ’em so bad up ’s bein’ ha’ans’m. Spiles ’em fer use abaout the place. Th’ humbly ones take t’ milkin’ more willin’ like; ’n’ I don’t see but what the caows give daown tew ’em full ’s well ’s tew the ha’ans’m ones. ’N’ then when ther’ looks goes the’ ’re apt t’ kick.”

“What, the caows?”

“No the wimmin.”

(“Humbly” in country parlance is a corruption of “homely,” the opposite of handsome; plain, ungainly. “Humbly as a hedge fence.”)

Zury pondered on this shrewd counsel from time to time, but took no step toward marrying.

“Right smart o’ things t’ think on afore th’ ’ll be any hurry ’baout a-gittin’ marr’d. Th’ feller th’t’s in an orfle sweat t’ marry, he’s li’ble t’ be the very feller th’t’s behindhand with everythin’ else. Takes Time by the forelock ’baout gittin’ a wife; ’n’ by the fetlock ’baout gittin’ suthin’ fer her t’ eat.”

The boy was wedded to his idols quite as faithfully, if not quite so sordidly, as was his father. Their dispositions were much alike. No draft on their powers of endurance and self-denial could be too great.

As to niggardliness, there was a confessed rivalry between them. Each would tell of the money-making and money-saving exploits of the other, and of his efforts to surpass them.

“Dad’s a screamer t’ save money! D’ye ever see him withe a plaow-pint ontew a plaow? Give him a hickory grub, ’n’ he kin dew it so it’ll run a good half a day; ’n’ then withe it on agin in noon-spell whilst th’ team’s a eatin’, ’n’ then withe it on agin come night so’s t’ be ready fer nex’ morn’n’, ’n’ keep it up fer a week that-a-way, sooner’n pay th’ smith a cent t’ rivit it fast.”

“Thasso, thasso, Zury. Hickory twigs is cheaper ner iron any day.”

“Ya-as, dad; but then I kin make a shillin’ while ye’re a savin’ a cent. Look at it wunst. I upped ’n’ sold the smith a half an acre, ’n’ took a mortgage on it, ’n’ made him dew all aour repairin’ b’ way of interest on the mortgage, ’n’ then foreclosed th’ mortgage when it come dew, ’n’ got th’ land back, shop ’n’ all. Business is business!”

Ephraim always wanted to buy at the shop where they wrapped up the purchases with the largest and strongest paper and twine, and the harnesses on the farm gradually grew to be largely composed of twine. Zury could buy everything at wholesale, half price, including merchandise, paper, twine, harnesses, and all.

One day Zury came across a poor little boy carrying a poorer little puppy and crying bitterly.

“What’s the matter, sonny?”

“Our folks gimme a dime t’ draownd this h’yer purp, ’n’ I—I—I—hate t’ dew it.”

“Wal, ne’ mind, bub; gimme the dime ’n’ I’ll draownd him fer ye.”

Whereupon he took the cash and the pup and walked to the mill-pond, while the boy ran home. Zury threw the little trembling creature as far as he could into the pond. A few seconds of wildly waving small ears, legs, and tail, and then a splash, and then nothing but widening ripples. But out of one of the ripples is poked a little round object, which directs itself bravely toward the shore. Nearer and nearer struggles the small black nozzle, sometimes under water, and sometimes on top, but always nearer.

“Ye mis’able, ornery little fyce, ye! Lemme ketch ye swimmin’ ashore! I’ll throw ye furder nex’ time.”

At last poor little roly-poly drags itself to the land and squats down at the very water’s edge, evidently near to the end of its powers. Zury picks it up and swings it for a mighty cast, but stops and studies it a moment.

“Looks fer all the world like a sheep-dawg purp.”

Whereupon he slipped it into his pocket and carried it home, where it grew up to be a fit mate to old Shep, and the ancestress of a line of sheep dogs which ornament Spring County to this day.

Later, when the same boy, grown older, applied to Zury for one of the pups, he charged him the full price, fifty cents, took all he had, thirty-six cents, and his note on interest for the balance, the dog being pledged as security. The note being unpaid when due, Zury took back the dog. “Business is business!”

Years passed, and it came time for the old man to be gathered to his fathers and the son to reign in his stead. When Ephraim lay on his death-bed, he whispered to Zury:

“What day’s to-day?”

“Tuesday, father.”

“I hope I’ll live ontel Thursday, ’n’ then ye kin hev the fun’r’l Sunday, ’n’ not lose a day’s work with the teams.”

He did not die till Saturday night, but Zury had the funeral on Sunday all the same, like a dutiful son as he was, bent on carrying out his father’s last request.

After Zury had grown to be a prosperous farmer, Chicago became the great market for the sale of grain. Teams by the score would start out from far down the State, and, driving during the day and camping at night, make the long journey. They would go in pairs or squads so as to be able to double teams over the bad places. Forty or fifty bushels could thus be carried in one load, when the chief parts of the roads were good, and “the ready john” (hard cash) could be got for the grain, at twenty or thirty cents a bushel for corn or wheat. This sum would provide a barrel or two of salt, and perhaps a plow and a bundle of dry goods and knicknacks for the women folks, the arrival of which was a great event in the lonely farm-houses.

Zury had now working for him (besides Jule, who kept house and attended to the live stock) a young fellow who became a score of years afterward private, corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, and captain in the —th Illinois Volunteer Infantry in the great war. From his stories, told in bivouacs and beside camp-fires, to toiling, struggling, suffering “boys in blue,” these tales are taken almost verbatim. (Some of them have already found their way into print.)

“Zury always wanted to get onto the road with farmers whose housekeeping was good, because his own was—well, wuss th’n what we git down here in Dixie, an’ there’s no need of that. Well, when they’d halt for noon-spell, Zury he’d happen along promiscuous-like, an’ most generally some of ’em would make him stop an’ take a bite. He was good company if he was so near. ’N’ then a man’s feed warn’t counted fer much, unless it was some store-truck or boughten stuff.

“But one day they jest passed the wink and sot it up on him, and come noon-spell nobody asked Zury an’ me to eat. Zury left me to take care of both teams while he walked up and down the line of wagins. Everybody who hadn’t ‘jest eat,’ warn’t ‘quite ready’ yet, an’ by the next time he came to those who hadn’t been ‘quite ready,’ they’d ‘jest eat.’

“Wal, Zury swallered his disappointment and I swallerd all the chawed wheat I could git away with, and the first settlement we passed Zury went and bought a monstrous big bag of sody-crackers, and we eat them for supper and breakfast. And still we were not happy.

“Next noon-spell Zury said: ‘Boys, s’posin’ we kinder whack up ’n’ mess together.’ Wal, the others’d had enough of their joke, and so they all agreed, and chipped in. Ham, pickles, pies, cakes, honey, eggs, apples, and one thing another. Ye see every man’s o’ woman knew that when they got together, her housekeep would be compared with everybody else’s; so these long drives were like donation parties, or weddings, or funerals—well fed.

“Of course, Zury’s sody-crackers went in with the rest, an’ me an’ Zury always ate some anyhow for appearance sake. I could see the fellers were all makin’ fun of Zury’s cute dodge of gettin’ a dozen good meals for him an’ me at the price of a few pounds of sody-crackers. But then, they didn’t know Zury so well as they thought they did. By an’ by the trip was done an’ settlin’-up-time came, when each man was called on for his share of pasturage, ferriage, an’ one thing another. Zury paid his, but he deducted out twenty-five cents paid for sody-crackers. Said it was one of the cash outlays for the common good, an’ if any of the rest of ’em spent money an’ didn’t put it in, more fools they. Business is business.”

So Zury in the soda-cracker episode came out “top of the heap” as usual. The top of the heap was his accustomed place, but still he perceived that he was living under one useless disability, and with his quick adaptation of means to ends and remedies to deficiencies, he simply—married. In doing this, he was guided by his father’s shrewd words; counsel which had lain fallow in his memory for years.

Zury’s marriageability had, of course, not been unobserved in the household of the three daughters. Peddicomb had remarked what a good “outin’” the Prouders had made in their purchase of swine from him, and cherished the same kind of feeling toward them that most of us experience when some other person has done better in a joint transaction than we did.

“Them Praouders, the’ ’ll skin outer the land all the’ kin skin, ’n’ then sell offen the place all ’t anybody’ll buy, ’n’ then feed t’ the hawgs all a hawg ’ll eat, ’n’ then give th’ rest t’ th’ dawg, ’n’ then what th’ dawg won’t tech the’ ’ll live on theirselves.”

“Yew bet,” tittered Semantha, the second. “That thar ornery Zury Praouder he’d let a woman starve t’ death ef he could. ’N’ o’ man Praouder wuz th’ same way, tew. Th’ o’ woman she wuz near abaout skin ’n’ bone when the’ buried her. I seen her in her coffin, ’n’ I know.”

“Oh, don’t yew be scaret, S’manthy. I hain’t saw Zury a-lookin’ over t’ your side o’ the meetin’-haouse, no gre’t,” kindly rejoined Flora, the youngest daughter.

“Who, me? He knows better! Not ef husbands wuz scarcer ner hen’s teeth.”

“Six hunderd ’n’ forty acres o’ good land, all fenced ’n’ paid fer; ’n’ a big orchard; ’n’ all well stocked, tew.” (He added this with a pang, remembering once more the pig-purchase, which by this time had grown to a mighty drove, spite of many sales.)

“Don’t care ef he owned all ou’ doors. Th’ more the’ ’ve got, th’ more it shows haow stingy the’ be.”

Then the meek Mary ventured a remark.

“Mebbe ef Zury wuz t’ marry a good gal it’d be the makin’ on him.”

“Oh, Mary, yew hain’t no call t’ stan’ up fer Zury! Th’ o’ man he’d a ben more in yewr line.”

“No, Zury wouldn’t want me, ner no other man, I don’t expect,” she answered with a laugh—and a sigh.

One Sunday afternoon Zury rode over to Peddicomb’s to get a wife. He tried to decide which girl to ask, but his mind would wander off to other subjects—crops, live stock, bargains, investments. He didn’t much think that either girl he asked would say no, but if she did, he could ask the others. When he came near the house he caught sight of one of the girls, in her Sunday clothes, picking a “posy” in the “front garding.” It was Mary.

“Good-day, Mary. Haow’s all the folks?”

“Good-day, Zury—Mr. Praouder, I s’pose I should say. Won’t ye ’light?”

“Wal, I guess not. I jes’ wanted t’ speak abaout a little matter.”

“Wal, father he’s raoun’ some ’ers. Haow’s the folks t’ your ’us?”

“All peart: that is t’ say th’ ain’t no one naow ye know, but me ’n’ Jule ’n’ Mac. That makes a kind of a bob-tail team, ye know, Mary. Nobody but Jule t’ look out fer things. Not b’t what he’s a pretty fair of a nigger as niggers go. He c’d stay raoun’ ’n’ help some aoutside.”

“Whatever is he a-drivin’ at?” thought Mary, but she said nothing.

“The’s three of you gals to hum. Ye don’t none of ye seem t’ go off yit, tho’ I sh’d a-thought Flory she’d a-ben picked up afore this, ’n’ S’manthy tew fer that matter.”

Neither of them saw the unintended slur this rough speech cast upon poor Mary.

“Don’t ye think we’d better git married, Mary?”

“What, me?”

“Wal, yes.” He answered this in a tone where she might have detected the suggestion, “or one of your sisters,” if she had been keen and critical. But she was neither. She simply rested her work-worn hand upon the gate-post and her chin upon her hand, and looked dreamily off over the prairie. She pondered the novel proposition for some time, but fortunately not quite long enough to cause Zury to ask if either of her sisters was at home, as he was quite capable of doing.

She looked up at him, the blood slowly mounting to her face, and considered how to say yes. He saw that she meant yes, so he helped her out a little. He wanted to have it settled and go.

“Wal, Mary, silence gives consent, they say. When shall it be?”

“Oh, yew ain’t in no hurry, Zury, I don’t expect.”

He was about to urge prompt action, but the thought occurred to him that she must want to get her “things” ready, and the longer she waited the more “things” she would bring with her. So he said:

“Suit yerself, Mary. I’ll drop over ’n’ see ye nex’ Sunday, ’n’ we’ll fix it all up.”

Mary had no objection to urge, though possibly in her secret heart she wished there had been a little more sentiment and romance about it. No woman likes “to be cheated out of her wooing,” but then this might come later. He called for her with the wagon on the appointed day, and they drove to the house of a justice of the peace who lived a good distance away. This was not for the sake of making a wedding trip, but because this particular justice owed Zury money, as Zury carefully explained.

And so Mary went to work for Zury very much as Jule did, only it was for less wages, as Jule got a dollar a month besides his board and clothes, while Mary did not.

For a year or two or three after marriage (during which two boys were born to them) Zury found that he had gained, by this investment, something more than mere profit and economy—that affection and sympathy were realities in life. But gradually the old dominant mania resumed its course, and involved in its current the weak wife as well as the strong husband. The general verdict was that both Zury and Mary were “jest’s near ’s they could stick ’n’ live.” “They’d skin a flea fer its hide ’n’ taller.”

“He gin an acre o’ graound fer the church ’n’ scule-house, ’n’ it raised the value of his hull farm more ’n’ a dollar an acre. ’N’ when he got onto the scule-board she ’llaowed she hadn’t released her daower right, ’n’ put him up t’ tax the deestrick fer the price of that same acre o’ ground.”

So Zury, claiming the proud position of “the meanest ma-an in Spring Caounty,” would like to hear his claim disputed. If he had a rival he would like to have him pointed out, and would “try pootty hard but what he’d match him.”

Strange as it may seem, these grasping characteristics did not make Zury despised or even disliked among his associates. His “meanness” was not underhanded.

“Th’ ain’t nothin’ mean abaout Zury, mean ’s he is. Gimme a man as sez right aout ‘look aout fer yerself,’ ’n’ I kin git along with him. It’s these h’yer sneakin’ fellers th’t’s one thing afore yer face ’n’ another behind yer back th’t I can’t abide. Take ye by th’ beard with one hand ’n’ smite ye under th’ fifth rib with t’other! He pays his way ’n’ dooz ’s he ’grees every time. When he buys ’taters o’ me, I’d jest ’s live ’s hev him measure ’em ’s measure ’em myself with him a-lookin’ on. He knows haow t’ trade, ’n’ ef yew don’t, he don’t want ye t’ trade with him, that’s all; ner t’ grumble if ye git holt o’ the hot eend o’ th’ poker arter he’s give ye fair notice. Better be shaved with a sharp razor than a dull one.”

On an occasion when the honesty of a more pretentious citizen was compared with Zury’s, to the advantage of the latter, he said:

“Honest? Me? Wal, I guess so. Fustly, I wouldn’t be noth’n’ else, nohaow; seck’ndly, I kin ’fford t’ be, seein’ ’s haow it takes a full bag t’ stand alone; thirdly, I can’t ’fford t’ be noth’n’ else, coz honesty ’s th’ best policy.”

He was evidently quoting, unconsciously but by direct inheritance, the aphorisms of his fellow Pennsylvanian, Dr. Franklin.

In peace as in war strong men love “foemen worthy of their steel.” Men liked to be with Zury and hear his gay, shrewd talk; to trade with him, and meet his frankly brutal greed. He enjoyed his popularity, and liked to do good turns to others when it cost him nothing. When elected to local posts of trust and confidence he served the public in the same efficient fashion in which he served himself, and he was therefore continually elected to school directorships and other like “thank’ee jobs.”