Those Times and These

Those Times and These

Irvin S. Cobb
Irvin S. Cobb

Author: Cobb, Irvin S. (Irvin Shrewsbury), 1876-1944
Short stories
United States — Social life and customs — 20th century — Fiction
Those Times and These


By Irvin S. Cobb

New York George H. Doran Company



MANDY MARTIN, whose soul was as white as her skin was black, and who for forty-two years, until her death, was a loyal friend and servant of my people.




TO me and to those of my generation, Judge Priest was always Judge Priest. So he was also to most of the people of our town and our county and our judicial district. A few men of his own age—mainly men who had served with him in the Big War—called him Billy, right to his face, and yet a few others, men of greater age than these, spoke of him and to him as William, giving to the name that benignant and most paternal air which an octogenarian may employ in referring to one who is ten or fifteen years his junior.
I was a fairly sizable young person before ever I found out that once upon a time among his intimates the Judge had worn yet another title. Information upon this subject was imparted to me one summery afternoon by Sergeant Jimmy Bagby as we two perched in company upon the porch of the old boat-store.
I don’t know what mission brought Sergeant Bagby three blocks down Franklin Street from his retail grocery establishment, unless it was that sometimes the boat-store porch was cool while the rest of the town baked. That is to say, it was cool by comparison. Little wanton breezes that strayed across the river paid fluttering visits there before they struck inland to perish miserably of heat prostration.
For the moment the Sergeant and I had the little wooden balcony to ourselves, nearly everybody else within sight and hearing having gone down the levee personally to enjoy the small excitement of seeing the stem-wheel packet Emily Foster land after successfully completing one of her regular triweekly round trips to Clarksburg and way landings.
At the blast of the Emily Foster’s whistles as she rounded to and put her nose upstream preparatory to sliding in alongside the wharf, divers coloured persons of the leisure class had roused from where they napped in the shady lee of freight piles and lined up on the outer gunwales of the wharf-boat ready to catch and make fast the head-line when it should be tossed across the intervening patch of water into their volunteer hands.
Two town hacks and two town drays had coursed down the steep gravelled incline, with the draymen standing erect upon the jouncing springless beds of their drays as was their way. In the matter of maintaining a balance over rough going and around abrupt turns, no chariot racers of old could have taught them anything. Only Sergeant Bagby and I, of all in the immediate vicinity, had remained where we were. The Sergeant was not of what you could exactly call a restless nature, and I, for the moment, must have been overcome by one of those fits of languor which occasionally descend upon the adolescent manling. We two bided where we sat.
With a tinkle of her engine bells, a calling out of orders and objurgations in the professionally hoarse, professionally profane voice of her head mate and a racking, asthmatic coughing and sighing and pounding from her exhaust pipes, the Emily Foster had found her berth; and now her late passengers came streaming up the slant of the hill—a lanky timberman or two, a commercial traveller—most patently a commercial traveller—a dressy person who looked as though he might be an advance agent for some amusement enterprise, and a family of movers, burdened with babies and bundles and accompanied by the inevitable hound dog. The commercial traveller and the suspected advance agent patronised the hacks—fare twenty-five cents anywhere inside the corporate limits—but the rest entered into the city afoot and sweating. At the very tail of the procession appeared our circuit judge, he being closely convoyed by his black house-boy, Jeff Poindexter, who packed the master’s bulging and ancient valise with one hand and bore a small collection of law books under his other arm.
Looking much like a high-land terrapin beneath the shelter of his venerable cotton umbrella, Judge Priest toiled up the hot slant. Observed from above, only his legs were visible for the moment. We knew him, though, by his legs—and also by Jeff and the umbrella. Alongside the eastern wall of the boat-store, nearmost of all buildings to the water-front, he halted in its welcome shadows to blow and to mop his streaming face with a vast square of handkerchief, and, while so engaged, glanced upward and beheld his friend, the Sergeant, beaming down upon him across the whittled banister rail.
“Hello, Jimmy!” he called in his high whine.
“Hello, yourself!” answered the Sergeant. “Been somewheres or jest traveling round?”
“Been somewheres,” vouchsafed the newly returned; “been up at Livingstonport all week, settin’ as special judge in place of Judge Given. He’s laid up in bed with a tech of summer complaint and I went up to git his docket cleaned up fur him. He’s better now, but still puny.”
“You got back ag’in in time to light right spang in the middle of a warm spell,” said Sergeant Bagby.
“Well,” stated Judge Priest, “it ain’t been exactly whut you’d call chilly up the river, neither. The present thaw appears to be gineral throughout this section of the country.” He waved a plump arm in farewell and slowly departed from view beyond the side wail of the boat-store.
“Looks like Judge Priest manages to take on a little more flesh every year he lives,” said the Sergeant, who was himself no lightweight, addressing the remark in my direction. “You wouldn’t scursely think it to see him waddlin’ ‘long, a to tin’ all that meat on his bones; but once’t upon a time he was mighty near ez slim ez his own ramrod and was commonly known ez little Fightin’ Billy. You wouldn’t, now, would you?”
The question I disregarded. It was the disclosure he had bared which appealed to my imagination and fired my curiosity. I said: “Mr. Bagby, I never knew anybody ever called Judge Priest that?”
“No, you natchelly wouldn’t,” said the Sergeant—“not onless you’d mebbe overheared some of us old fellers talkin’ amongst ourselves sometimes, with no outsiders present. It wouldn’t hardly be proper, ever’thing considered, to be referrin’ in public to the presidin’ judge of the first judicial district of the State of Kintucky by sech a name ez that. Besides which, he ain’t little any more. And then, there’s still another reason.”
“How did they ever come to call him that in the first place?” I asked.
“Well, young man, it makes quite a tale,” said the Sergeant. With an effort he hauled out his big silver watch, looked at its face, and then wedged it back into a hidden recess under one of the overlapping creases of his waistband.
“He acquired that there title at Shiloh, in the State of Tennessee, and by his own request he parted from it some three years and four months later on the banks of the Rio Grande River, in the Republic of Mexico, I bein’ present in pusson on both occasions. But ef you’ve got time to listen I reckin I’ve got jest about the time to tell it to you.”
“Yes, sir—if you please.” With eagerness, I hitched my cane-bottomed chair along the porch floor to be nearer him. And then as he seemed not to have heard my assent, I undertook to prompt him. “Er—what were you and Judge Priest doing down in Mexico, Mr. Bagby?”
“Tryin’ to git out of the United States of America fur one thing.” A little grin, almost a shamefaced grin, I thought, broke his round moist face up into fat wrinkles. He puckered his eyes in thought, looking out across the languid tawny river toward the green towhead in midstream and the cottonwoods on the far bank, a mile and more away. “But I don’t marvel much that you never heared the full circumstances before. Our bein’ down in Mexico together that time is a fact we never advertised ’round for common consumption—neither one of us.”
He withdrew his squinted gaze from the hot vista of shores and water and swung his body about to face me, thereafter punctuating his narrative with a blunted forefinger.
“My command was King’s Hell Hounds. There ought to be a book written some of these days about whut all King’s Hell Hounds done en-durin’ of the unpleasantness—it’d make mighty excitin’ readin’. But Billy and a right smart chance of the other boys frum this place, they served throughout with Company B of the Old Regiment of mounted infantry. Most of the time frum sixty-one to sixty-five I wasn’t throwed with ’em, but jest before the end came we were all consolidated—whut there was remainin’ of us—under General Nathan Bedford Forrest down in Mississippi. Fur weeks and months before that, we knowed it was a hopeless fight we were wagin’, but somehow we jest kept on. I reckin we’d sort of got into the fightin’ habit. Fellers do, you know, sometimes, when the circumstances are favourable, ez in this case.
“Well, here one mornin’ in April, came the word frum Virginia that Richmond had fallen, and right on top of that, that Marse Robert had had to surrender. They said, too, that Sherman had Johnston penned off somewheres down in the Carolinas, we didn’t know exactly where, and that Johnston would have to give up before many days passed. In fact, he had already give up a week before we finally heared about it. So then accordin’ to our best information and belief, that made us the last body of organised Confederates on the east bank of the Mississippi River. That’s a thing I was always mighty proud of. I’m proud of it yit.
“All through them last few weeks the army was dwindlin’ away and dwindlin’ away. Every momin’ at roll-call there’d be a few more absentees. Don’t git me wrong—I wouldn’t call them boys deserters. They’d stuck that long, doin’ their duty like men, but they knowed good and well—in fact we all knowed—’twas only a question of time till even Forrest would have to quit before overpowerin’ odds and we’d be called on to lay down the arms we’d toted fur so long. Their families needed ’em, so they jest quit without sayin’ anything about it to anybody and went on back to their homes. This was specially true of some that lived in that district.
“But with the boys frum up this way it was different. In a way of speakin’, we didn’t have no homes to go back to. Our State had been in Northern hands almost frum the beginnin’ and some of us had prices on our heads right that very minute on account of bein’ branded ez guerrillas. Which was a lie. But folks didn’t always stop to sift out the truth then. They were prone to shoot you first and go into the merits of the case afterward. Anyway, betwixt us and home there was a toler’ble thick hedge of Yankee soldiers—in fact several thick hedges. You know they called one of our brigades the Orphan Brigade. And there were good reasons fur callin’ it so—more ways than one.
“I ain’t never goin’ to furgit the night of the fifth of May. Somehow the tidin’s got round amongst the boys that the next mornin’ the order to surrender was goin’ to be issued. The Yankee cavalry general, Wilson—and he was a good peart fighter, too—had us completely blocked off to the North and the East, but the road to the Southwest was still open ef anybody cared to foller it. So that night some of us held a little kind of a meetin’—about sixty of us—mainly Kintuckians, but with a sprinklin’ frum other States, too.
“Ez I remember, there wasn’t a contrary voice raised when ’twas suggested we should try to make it acrost the big river and j’ine in under Kirby Smith, who still had whut was left of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi.
“Billy Priest made the principal speech. ‘Boys,’ he says, ‘South Carolina may a-started this here war, but Kintucky has undertook the contract to close it out. Somewheres out yonder in Texas they tell me there’s yit a consid’ble stretch of unconquered Confederate territory. Speakin’ fur myself I don’t believe I’m ever goin’ to be able to live comfortable an’ reconciled under any other flag than the flag we’ve fit to uphold. Let’s us-all go see ef we can’t find the place where our flag still floats.’
“So we all said we’d go. Then the question ariz of namin’ a leader. There was one man that had been a captain and a couple more that had been lieutenants, but, practically unanimously, we elected little Billy Priest. Even ef he was only jest a private in the ranks we all knowed it wasn’t fur lack of chances to go higher. After Shiloh, he’d refused a commission and ag’in after Hartsville. So, in lessen no time a-tall, that was settled, too.
“Bright and early next day we started, takin’ our guns and our hosses with us. They were our hosses anyway; mainly we’d borrowed ’em off Yankees, or anyways, off Yankee sympathisers on our last raid Northward and so that made ’em our pussonal property, the way we figgered it out. ‘Tennyrate we didn’t stop to argue the matter with nobody whutsoever. We jest packed up and we put out—and we had almighty little to pack up, lemme tell you.
“Ez we rid off we sung a song that was be-ginnin’ to be right fashionable that spring purty near every place below Mason and Dixon’s line; and all over the camp the rest of the boys took it up and made them old woodlands jest ring with it. It was a kind of a farewell to us. The fust verse was likewise the chorus and it run something like this:
Oh, I’m a good old rebel, that’s jest whut I am;
And fur this land of freedom I do not give a dam’,
I’m glad I fit ag’in her, I only wish’t we’d won,
And I don’t ax your pardon fur anything I’ve done.
“And so on and so forth. There were several more verses all expressin’ much the same trend of thought, and all entirely in accordance with our own feelin’s fur the time bein’.
“Well, boy, I reckin there ain’t no use wastin’ time describin’ the early stages of that there pilgrimage. We went ridin’ along livin’ on the land and doin’ the best we could. We were young fellers, all of us, and it was springtime in Dixie—you know whut that means—and in spite of everything, some of the springtime got into our hearts, too, and drove part of the bitterness out. The country was all scarified with the tracks of war, but nature was doin’ her level best to cover up the traces of whut man had done. People along our route had mighty slim pickin’s fur themselves, but the sight of an old grey jacket was still mighty dear to most of ’em and they divided whut little they had with us and wish’t they had more to give us. We didn’t need much at that—a few meals of vittles fur the men and a little fodder fur our hosses and we’d be satisfied. We’d reduced slow starvation to an exact ‘science long before that. Every man in the outfit was hard ez nails and slim ez a blue racer.
“Whut Northern forces there was East of the river we dodged. In fact we didn’t have occasion to pull our shootin’-irons but once’t, and that was after we’d cros’t over into Louisiana. There wasn’t any organised military force to regulate things and in the back districts civil government had mighty near vanished altogether. People had went back to fust principles—wild, reckless fust principles they were, too. One day an old woman warned us there was a gang of bushwhackers operatin’ down the road a piece in the direction we were headin’—a mixed crowd of deserters frum both sides, she said, who’d jined in with some of the local bad characters and were preyin’ on the country, hariyin’ the defenceless, and terrorism’ women and children and raisin’ hob ginerally. She advised us that we’d better give ’em a wide berth.
“But Billy Priest he throwed out scouts and located the gang, and jest before sunrise next mornin’ we dropped in on ’em, takin’ ’em by surprise in the camp they’d rigged up in a live-oak thicket in the midst of a stretch of cypress slashes.
“And when the excitement died down ag’in, quite a number of them bushwhackers had quit whackin’ permanently and the rest of ’em were tearin’ off through the wet woods wonderin’, between jumps, whut had hit ’em. Ez fur our command, we accumulated a considerable passel of plunder and supplies and a number of purty fair hosses, and went on our way rejoicin’. We hadn’t lost a man, and only one man wounded.
“When we hit the Texas border, news was waitin’ fur us. They told us ef we aimed to ketch up with the last remainders of the army we’d have to hurry, because Smith and Shelby, with whut was left of his Missoury outfit, and Sterlin’ Price and Hindman with some of his Arkansaw boys and a right smart sprinklin’ of Texans had already pulled up stakes and were headed fur old Mexico, where the natives were in the enjoyable midst of one of their regular revolutions.
“With the French crowd and part of the Mexicans to help him, the Emperor Maximilian was tryin’ to hang onto his onsteady and topplin’ throne, whilst the Republikins or Liberals, as they called themselves, were tryin’ with might and main to shove him off of it. Ef a feller jest natchelly honed fur an opportunity to indulge a fancy fur active hostilities, Mexico seemed to offer a very promisin’ field of endeavour.
“It didn’t take us long to make up our minds whut course we’d follow. Billy Priest put the motion. ‘Gentlemen,’ he says, ‘it would seem the Southern Confederacy is bent and determined on gittin’ clear out frum under the shad-der of the Yankee government. It has been moved and seconded that we foller after her no matter where she goes. All in favour of that motion will respond by sayin’ Aye—contrary-wise, No. The Ayes seem to have it and the Ayes do have it and it is so ordered, unanimously. By fours! Forward, march!’
“That happened in the town of Corsicana in the early summer-time of the year. So we went along acrost the old Lone Star State, headin’ mighty nigh due West, passin’ through Waco and Austin and San Antonio, and bein’ treated mighty kindly by the people wheresoever we passed. And ez we went, one of the boys that had poetic leanin’s, he made up a new verse to our song. Let’s see, son, ef I kin remember it now after all these years.”
The Sergeant thought a bit and then lifting his voice in a quavery cadence favoured me with the following gem:
I won’t be reconstructed; I’m better now than them;
And fur a carpet-bagger I don’t give a dam;
So I’m off fur the frontier, fast ez I kin go,
I’ll purpare me a weepon and head fur Mexico.
“It was the middle of July and warm enough to satisfy the demands of the most exactin’ when we reached the Rio Grande, to find out Shelby’s force had done crossed over after buryin’ their battle-flag in the middle of the river, wrapped up in a rock to hold it down. On one side was cactus and greasewood and a waste of sandy land, that was already back in the Union or mighty soon would be. On the other side was more cactus and more grease-wood and more sandy loam, but in a different country. So, after spendin’ a few pleasant hours at the town of Eagle Pass, we turn’t our backs to one country and cros’t over to the other, alookin’ fur the Confederacy wherever she might be. I figgered it out I was tellin’ the United States of America good-by furever. I seem to remember that quite a number of us kept peerin’ back over our shoulders toward the Texas shore. They tell me the feller that wrote ‘Home Sweet Home’ didn’t have any home to go to but he writ the song jest the same. Nobody didn’t say nothin’, though, about weakenin’ or turnin’ back.
“Very soon after we hit Mexican soil we run into one of the armies—a Liberal army, this one was, of about twelve hundred men, and its name suited it to a T. The officers were liberal about givin’ orders and the men were equally liberal about makin’ up their minds whether or not they’d obey. Also, ez

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Those Times and These
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