Back Home: Being the Narrative of Judge Priest and His People

Back Home: Being the Narrative of Judge Priest and His People

Irvin S. Cobb
Irvin S. Cobb

Author: Cobb, Irvin S. (Irvin Shrewsbury), 1876-1944
Short stories
Kentucky — Social life and customs — Fiction
Back Home: Being the Narrative of Judge Priest and His People



By Irvin S. Cobb

New York, George H. Doran Company




AFTER I came North to live it seemed to me, as probably it has seemed to many Southern born men and women that the Southerner of fiction as met with in the North was generally just that—fiction—and nothing else; that in the main he was a figment of the drama and of the story book; a type that had no just claim on existence and yet a type that was currently accepted as a verity.
From well meaning persons who apparently wished to convey an implied compliment for the southern part of this republic I was forever hearing of “southern pride” and “hot southern blood” and “old southern families,” these matters being mentioned always with a special emphasis which seemed to betray a profound conviction on the part of the speakers that there was a certain physical, tangible, measurable distinction between, say, the pride of a Southerner and the blood-temperature of a Southerner and the pride and blood heat of a man whose parents had chosen some other part of the United States as a suitable place for him to be born in. Had these persons spoken of things which I knew to be a part and parcel of the Southerner’s nature—such things for example as his love for his own state and his honest veneration for the records made by men of southern birth and southern blood in the Civil War—I might have understood them. But seemingly they had never heard of those matters.
I also discovered or thought I discovered that as a rule the Southerner as seen on the stage or found between the covers of a book or a magazine was drawn from a more or less imaginary top stratum of southern life, or else from a bottom-most stratum—either he purported to be an elderly, un-reconstructed, high-tempered gentleman of highly aristocratic tendencies residing in a feudal state of shabby grandeur and proud poverty on a plantation gone to seed; or he purported to be a pure white of the poorest. With a few exceptions the playwright and the story writers were not taking into account sundry millions of southern born people who were neither venerable and fiery colonels with frayed wrist bands and limp collars, nor yet were they snuffdipping, ginseng-digging clay-eaters, but just such folk as allowing for certain temperamental differences—created by climate and soil and tradition and by two other main contributing causes: the ever-present race question and the still living and vivid memories of the great war—might be found as numerously in Iowa or Indiana or any other long-settled, typically American commonwealth as in Tennessee or Georgia or Mississippi, having the same aspirations, the same blood in their veins, the same impulses and being prone under almost any conceivable condition to do the same thing in much the same way.
Viewing my own state and my own people across the perspective of time and distance I had the ambition to set down on paper, as faithfully as I might, a representation of those people as I knew them. By this I do not mean to declare that I sensed any audible and visible demand for such a piece of writing; so far as I know there has been no such demand. It was my own notion solely. I wanted, if I could to describe what I believed to be an average southern community so that others might see it as I had seen it. This book is the result of that desire.
For my material I draw upon the life of that community as I remembered it. Most of the characters that figure in the events hereinafter described were copies, to the best of my ability as a copyist, of real models; and for some of the events themselves there was in the first place a fairly substantial basis of fact.
Having such an aim I wrote what I conceived to be a series of pictures, out of the life of a town in the western part of Kentucky; that part of Kentucky which gave to the nation among others, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. These, pictures fell into the form of inter-related stories, and as such were first printed in the Saturday Evening Post. They are now offered here as a whole.


New York, November 1912


WHEN Breck Tandy killed a man he made a number of mistakes. In the first place, he killed the most popular man in Forked Deer County—the county clerk, a man named Abner J. Rankin. In the second place, he killed him with no witnesses present, so that it stood his word—and he a newcomer and a stranger—against the mute, eloquent accusation of a riddled dead man. And in the third place, he sent north of the Ohio River for a lawyer to defend him.
On the first Monday in June—Court Monday—the town filled up early. Before the field larks were out of the grass the farmers were tying their teams to the gnawed hitch-racks along the square. By nine o’clock the swapping ring below the wagonyard was swimming in red dust and clamorous with the chaffer of the horse-traders. In front of a vacant store the Ladies’ Aid Society of Zion Baptist Church had a canvas sign out, announcing that an elegant dinner would be served for twenty-five cents from twelve to one, also ice cream and cake all day for fifteen cents.
The narrow wooden sidewalks began to creak and chum under the tread of many feet. A long-haired medicine doctor emerged from his frock-coat like a locust coming out of its shell, pushed his high hat off his forehead and ranged a guitar, sundry bottles of a potent mixture, his tooth-pulling forceps, and a trick-handkerchief upon the narrow shelf of his stand alongside the Drummers’ Home Hotel. In front of the little dingy tent of the Half Man and Half Horse a yellow negro sat on a split-bottom chair limbering up for a hard day. This yellow negro was an artist. He played a common twenty-cent mouth organ, using his left hand to slide it back and forth across his spread lips. The other hand held a pair of polished beef bones, such as end men wield, and about the wrist was buckled a broad leather strap with three big sleigh-bells riveted loosely to the leather, so that he could clap the bones and shake the bells with the same motion. He was a whole orchestra in himself. He could play on his mouth organ almost any tune you wanted, and with his bones and his bells to help out he could creditably imitate a church organ, a fife-and-drum corps, or, indeed, a full brass band. He had his chair tilted back until his woolly head dented a draggled banner depicting in five faded primary colon the physical attractions of the Half Man and Half Horse—Marvel of the Century—and he tested his mouth organ with short, mellow, tentative blasts as he waited until the Marvel and the Marvel’s manager finished a belated breakfast within and the first ballyhoo could start. He was practicing the newest of the ragtime airs to get that far South. The name of it was The Georgia Camp-Meeting.
The town marshal in his shirt sleeves, with a big silver shield pinned to the breast of his unbuttoned blue waistcoat and a hickory stick with a crook handle for added emblem of authority, stalked the town drunkard, fair game at all seasons and especially on Court Monday. The town gallant whirled back and forth the short hilly length of Main Street in his new side-bar buggy. A clustering group of negroes made a thick, black blob, like hiving bees, in front of a negro fishhouse, from which came the smell and sounds of perch and channel cat frying on spitting-hot skillets. High up on the squat cupola of the courthouse a red-headed woodpecker clung, barred in crimson, white, and blue-black, like a bit of living bunting, engaged in the hopeless task of trying to drill through the tin sheathing. The rolling rattle of his beak’s tattoo came down sharply to the crowds below. Mourning doves called to one another in the trees round the red-brick courthouse, and at ten o’clock, when the sun was high and hot, the sheriff came out and, standing between two hollow white pillars, rapped upon one of them with a stick and called upon all witnesses and talesmen to come into court for the trial of John Breckinridge Tandy, charged with murder in the first degree, against the peace and dignity of the commonwealth of Tennessee and the statutes made and provided.
But this ceremonial by the sheriff was for form rather than effect, since the witnesses and the talesmen all sat in the circuit-court chamber along with as many of the population of Forked Deer County as could squeeze in there. Already the air of the crowded chamber was choky with heat and rancid with smell. Men were perched precariously in’ the ledges of the windows. More men were ranged in rows along the plastered walls, dunking their heels against the cracked wooden baseboards. The two front rows of benches were full of women. For this was to be the big case of the June term—a better show by long odds than the Half Man and Half Horse.
Inside the low railing that divided the room and on the side nearer the jury box were the forces of the defense. Under his skin the prisoner showed a sallow paleness born of his three months in the county jail. He was tall and dark and steady eyed, a young man, well under thirty. He gave no heed to those who sat in packed rows behind him, wishing him evil. He kept his head turned front, only bending it sometimes to whisper with one of his lawyers or one of his witnesses. Frequently, though, his hand went out in a protecting, reassuring way to touch his wife’s brown hair or to rest a moment on her small shoulder. She was a plain, scared, shrinking little thing. The fingers of her thin hands were plaited desperately together in her lap. Already she was trembling. Once in a while she would raise her face, showing shallow brown eyes dilated with fright, and then sink her head again like a quail trying to hide. She looked pitiable and lonely.
The chief attorney for the defense was half turned from the small counsel table where he might study the faces of the crowd. He was from Middle Indiana, serving his second term in Congress. If his party held control of the state he would go to the Senate after the next election. He was an orator of parts and a pleader of almost a national reputation. He had manly grace and he was a fine, upstanding figure of a man, and before now he had wrung victories out of many difficult cases. But he chilled to his finger-nails with apprehensions of disaster as he glanced searchingly about the close-packed room.
Wherever he looked he saw no friendliness at all. He could feel the hostility of that crowd as though it had substance and body.
It was a tangible thing; it was almost a physical thing. Why, you could almost put your hand out and touch it. It was everywhere there.
And it focussed and was summed up in the person of Aunt Tilly Haslett, rearing on the very front bench with her husband, Uncle Fayette, half hidden behind her vast and over-flowing bulk. Aunt Tilly made public opinion in Hyattsville. Indeed she was public opinion in that town. In her it had its up-comings and its out-flowings. She held herself bolt upright, filling out the front of her black bombazine basque until the buttons down its front strained at their buttonholes. With wide, deliberate strokes she fanned herself with a palm-leaf fan. The fan had an edging of black tape sewed round it—black tape signifying in that community age or mourning, or both. Her jaw was set like a steel latch, and her little gray eyes behind her steel-bowed specs were leveled with a baleful, condemning glare that included the strange lawyer, his client, his client’s wife, and all that was his client’s.
Congressman Durham looked and knew that his presence was an affront to Aunt Tilly and all those who sat with her; that his somewhat vivid tie, his silken shirt, his low tan shoes, his new suit of gray flannels—a masterpiece of the best tailor in Indianapolis—were as insults, added up and piled on, to this suspendered, gingham-shirted constituency. Better than ever he realized now the stark hopelessness of the task to which his hands were set. And he dreaded what was coming almost as much for himself as for the man he was hired to defend. But he was a trained veteran of courtroom campaigns, and there was a jauntily assumed confidence in his bearing as he swung himself about and made a brisk show of conferring with the local attorney who was to aid him in the choosing of the jurors and the questioning of the witnesses.
But it was real confidence and real jauntiness that radiated from the other wing of the inclosure, where the prosecutor sat with the assembled bar of Forked Deer County on his flanks, volunteers upon the favored side, lending to it the moral support of weight and numbers. Rankin, the dead man, having been a bachelor, State’s Attorney Gilliam could bring no lorn widow and children to mourn before the jurors’ eyes and win added sympathy for his cause. Lacking these most valued assets of a murder trial he supplied their places with the sisters of the dead man—two sparse-built elderly women in heavy black, with sweltering thick veils down over their faces. When the proper time came he would have them raise these veils and show their woeful faces, but now they sat shrouded all in crepe, fit figures of desolation and sorrow. He fussed about busily, fiddling the quill toothpick that hung perilously in the corner of his mouth and evening up the edges of a pile of law books with freckled calfskin covers. He was a lank, bony garfish of a man, with a white goatee aggressively protruding from his lower lip. He was a poor speaker but mighty as a cross-examiner, and he was serving his first term and was a candidate for another. He wore the official garbing of special and extraordinary occasions—long black coat and limp white waistcoat and gray striped trousers, a trifle short in the legs. He felt the importance of his place here almost visibly—his figure swelled and expanded out his clothes.
“Look yonder at Tom Gilliam,” said Mr. Lukins, the grocer, in tones of whispered admiration to his next-elbow neighbor, “jest prunin’ and honin’ hisse’f to git at that there Tandy and his dude Yankee lawyer. If he don’t chaw both of ’em up together I’ll be dad-burned.”
“You bet,” whispered back his neighbor—it was Aunt Tilly’s oldest son, Fayette, Junior—“it’s like Maw says—time’s come to teach them murderin’ Kintuckians they can’t be a-comin’ down here a-killin’ up people and not pay for it. I reckon, Mr. Lukins,” added Fayette, Junior, with a wriggle of pleased anticipation, “we shore are goin’ to see some carryin’s-on in this cotehouse today.”
Mr. Lukins’ reply was lost to history because just then the judge entered—an elderly, kindly-looking man—from his chambers in the rear, with the circuit-court clerk right behind him bearing large leather-clad books and sheaves of foolscap paper. Their coming made a bustle. Aunt Tilly squared herself forward, scrooging Uncle Fayette yet farther into the eclipse of her shapeless figure. The prisoner raised his head and eyed his judge. His wife looked only at the interlaced, weaving fingers in her lap.
The formalities of the opening of a term of court were mighty soon over; there was everywhere manifest a haste to get at the big thing. The clerk called the case of the Commonwealth versus Tandy. Both sides were ready. Through the local lawyer, delegated for these smaller purposes, the accused man pleaded not guilty. The clerk spun the jury wheel, which was a painted wooden drum on a creaking wooden axle, and drew forth a slip of paper with the name of a talesman written upon it and read aloud:
“Isom W. Tolliver.”
In an hour the jury was complete: two townsmen, a clerk and a telegraph operator, and ten men from the country—farmers mainly and one blacksmith and one horse-trader. Three of the panel who owned up frankly to a fixed bias had been let go by consent of both sides. Three more were sure they could give the defendant a fair trial, but those three the local lawyer had challenged peremptorily. The others were accepted as they came. The foreman was a brownskinned, sparrowhawk-looking old man, with a smoldering brown eye. He had spare, knotted hands, like talons, and the right one was marred and twisted, with a sprayed bluish scar in the midst of the crippled knuckles like the mark of an old gunshot wound. Juror No. 4 was a stodgy old man, a small planter from the back part of the county, who fanned himself steadily with a brown-varnished straw hat. No. 7 was even older, a white-whiskered patriarch on crutches. The twelfth juryman was the oldest of the twelve—he looked to be almost seventy, but he went into the box after he had sworn that his sight and hearing and general health were good and that he still could do his ten hours a day at his blacksmith shop. This juryman chewed tobacco without pause. Twice after he took his seat at the bade end of the double line he tried for a wooden cuspidor ten feet away. Both were creditable attempts, but he missed each time. Seeing the look of gathering distress in his eyes the sheriff brought the cuspidor nearer, and thereafter No. 12 was content, chewing steadily like some bearded contemplative ruminant and listening attentively to the evidence, meanwhile scratching a very wiry head of whity-red hair with a thumbnail that through some injury had taken on the appearance of a very thick, very black Brazil nut. This scratching made a raspy, filing sound that after a while got on Congressman Durham’s nerves.
It was late in the afternoon when the prosecution rested its case and court adjourned until the following morning. The state’s attorney had not had so very much evidence to offer, really—the testimony of one who heard the single shot and ran in at Rankin’s door to find Rankin upon the floor, about dead, with a pistol, unfired, in his hand and Tandy standing against the wall with a pistol, fired, in his; the constable to whom Tandy surrendered; the physician who examined the body; the persons who knew of the quarrel between Tandy and Rankin growing out of a land deal into which they had gone partners—not much, but enough for Gilliam’s purposes. Once in the midst of examining a witness the state’s attorney, seemingly by accident, let his look fall upon the two black-robed, silent figures at his side, and as though overcome by the sudden realization of a great grief, he faltered and stopped dead and sank down. It was an old trick, but well done, and a little humming murmur like a breeze coming through treetops swept the audience.
Durham was sick in his soul as he came away.
In his mind there stood the picture of a little, scared woman’s drawn, drenched face. She had started crying before the last juror was chosen and thereafter all day, at half-minute intervals, the big, hard sobs racked her. As Durham came down the steps he had almost to shove his way through a knot of natives outside the doors. They grudged him the path they made for him, and as he showed them his back he heard a snicker and some one said a thing that cut him where he was already bruised—in his egotism. But he gave no heed to the words. What was the use?
At the Drummers’ Home Hotel a darky waiter sustained a profound shock when the imported lawyer declined the fried beefsteak with fried potatoes and also the fried ham and eggs. Mastering his surprise the waiter offered to try to get the Northern gentleman a fried pork chop and some fried June apples, but Durham only wanted a glass of milk for his supper. He drank it and smoked a cigar, and about dusk he went upstairs to his room. There he found assembled the forlorn rank and file of the defense, the local lawyer and three character witnesses—prominent citizens from Tandy’s home town who were to testify to his good repute in the place where he was born and reared. These would be the only witn

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Back Home: Being the Narrative of Judge Priest and His People
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