Another Southern Product

One morning shortly after the opening of the hospital, while Dr. Miller was making his early rounds, a new patient walked in with a smile on his face and a broken arm hanging limply by his side. Miller recognized in him a black giant by the name of Josh Green, who for many years had worked on the docks for Miller’s father⁠—and simultaneously identified him as the dust-begrimed negro who had stolen a ride to Wellington on the trucks of a passenger car.

“Well, Josh,” asked the doctor, as he examined the fracture, “how did you get this? Been fighting again?”

“No, suh, I don’ s’pose you could ha’dly call it a fight. One er dem dagoes off’n a Souf American boat gimme some er his jaw, an’ I give ’im a back answer, an’ here I is wid a broken arm. He got holt er a belayin’-pin befo’ I could hit ’im.”

“What became of the other man?” demanded Miller suspiciously. He perceived, from the indifference with which Josh bore the manipulation of the fractured limb, that such an accident need not have interfered seriously with the use of the remaining arm, and he knew that Josh had a reputation for absolute fearlessness.

“Lemme see,” said Josh reflectively, “ef I kin ’member w’at did become er him! Oh, yes, I ’member now! Dey tuck him ter de Marine Horspittle in de amberlance, ’cause his leg wuz broke, an’ I reckon somethin’ must ’a’ accident’ly hit ’im in de jaw, fer he wuz scatt’rin’ teeth all de way ’long de street. I didn’ wan’ ter kill de man, fer he might have somebody dependin’ on ’im, an’ I knows how dat’d be ter dem. But no man kin call me a damn’ low-down nigger and keep on enjoyin’ good health right along.”

“It was considerate of you to spare his life,” said Miller dryly, “but you’ll hit the wrong man some day. These are bad times for bad negroes. You’ll get into a quarrel with a white man, and at the end of it there’ll be a lynching, or a funeral. You’d better be peaceable and endure a little injustice, rather than run the risk of a sudden and violent death.”

“I expec’s ter die a vi’lent death in a quarrel wid a w’ite man,” replied Josh, in a matter-of-fact tone, “an’ fu’thermo’, he’s gwine ter die at the same time, er a little befo’. I be’n takin’ my own time ’bout killin’ ’im; I ain’ be’n crowdin’ de man, but I’ll be ready after a w’ile, an’ den he kin look out!”

“And I suppose you’re merely keeping in practice on these other fellows who come your way. When I get your arm dressed, you’d better leave town till that fellow’s boat sails; it may save you the expense of a trial and three months in the chain-gang. But this talk about killing a man is all nonsense. What has any man in this town done to you, that you should thirst for his blood?”

“No, suh, it ain’ nonsense⁠—it’s straight, solem’ fac’. I’m gwine ter kill dat man as sho’ as I’m settin’ in dis cheer; an’ dey ain’ nobody kin say I ain’ got a right ter kill ’im. Does you ’member de Ku-Klux?”

“Yes, but I was a child at the time, and recollect very little about them. It is a page of history which most people are glad to forget.”

“Yas, suh; I was a chile, too, but I wuz right in it, an’ so I ’members mo’ erbout it ’n you does. My mammy an’ daddy lived ’bout ten miles f’m here, up de river. One night a crowd er w’ite men come ter ou’ house an’ tuck my daddy out an’ shot ’im ter death, an’ skeered my mammy so she ain’ be’n herse’f f’m dat day ter dis. I wa’n’t mo’ ’n ten years ole at de time, an’ w’en my mammy seed de w’ite men comin’, she tol’ me ter run. I hid in de bushes an’ seen de whole thing, an’ it wuz branded on my mem’ry, suh, like a red-hot iron bran’s de skin. De w’ite folks had masks on, but one of ’em fell off⁠—he wuz de boss, he wuz de head man, an’ tol’ de res’ w’at ter do⁠—an’ I seen his face. It wuz a easy face ter ’member; an’ I swo’ den, ’way down deep in my hea’t, little ez I wuz, dat some day er ’nother I’d kill dat man. I ain’t never had no doubt erbout it; it’s jus’ w’at I’m livin’ fer, an’ I know I ain’ gwine ter die till I’ve done it. Some lives fer one thing an’ some fer another, but dat’s my job. I ain’ be’n in no has’e, fer I’m not ole yit, an’ dat man is in good health. I’d like ter see a little er de worl’ befo’ I takes chances on leavin’ it sudden; an’, mo’over, somebody’s got ter take keer er de ole ’oman. But her time’ll come some er dese days, an den his time’ll be come⁠—an’ prob’ly mine. But I ain’ keerin’ ’bout myse’f: w’en I git thoo wid him, it won’ make no diff’ence ’bout me.”

Josh was evidently in dead earnest. Miller recalled, very vividly, the expression he had seen twice on his patient’s face, during the journey to Wellington.

He had often seen Josh’s mother, old Aunt Milly⁠—“Silly Milly,” the children called her⁠—wandering aimlessly about the street, muttering to herself incoherently. He had felt a certain childish awe at the sight of one of God’s creatures who had lost the light of reason, and he had always vaguely understood that she was the victim of human cruelty, though he had dated it farther back into the past. This was his first knowledge of the real facts of the case.

He realized, too, for a moment, the continuity of life, how inseparably the present is woven with the past, how certainly the future will be but the outcome of the present. He had supposed this old wound healed. The negroes were not a vindictive people. If, swayed by passion or emotion, they sometimes gave way to gusts of rage, these were of brief duration. Absorbed in the contemplation of their doubtful present and their uncertain future, they gave little thought to the past⁠—it was a dark story, which they would willingly forget. He knew the timeworn explanation that the Ku-Klux movement, in the main, was merely an ebullition of boyish spirits, begun to amuse young white men by playing upon the fears and superstitions of ignorant negroes. Here, however, was its tragic side⁠—the old wound still bleeding, the fruit of one tragedy, the seed of another. He could not approve of Josh’s application of the Mosaic law of revenge, and yet the incident was not without significance. Here was a negro who could remember an injury, who could shape his life to a definite purpose, if not a high or holy one. When his race reached the point where they would resent a wrong, there was hope that they might soon attain the stage where they would try, and, if need be, die, to defend a right. This man, too, had a purpose in life, and was willing to die that he might accomplish it. Miller was willing to give up his life to a cause. Would he be equally willing, he asked himself, to die for it? Miller had no prophetic instinct to tell him how soon he would have the opportunity to answer his own question. But he could not encourage Josh to carry out this dark and revengeful purpose. Every worthy consideration required him to dissuade his patient from such a desperate course.

“You had better put away these murderous fancies, Josh,” he said seriously. “The Bible says that we should ‘forgive our enemies, bless them that curse us, and do good to them that despitefully use us.’ ”

“Yas, suh, I’ve l’arnt all dat in Sunday-school, an’ I’ve heared de preachers say it time an’ time ag’in. But it ’pears ter me dat dis fergitfulniss an’ fergivniss is mighty one-sided. De w’ite folks don’ fergive nothin’ de niggers does. Dey got up de Ku-Klux, dey said, on ’count er de kyarpit-baggers. Dey be’n talkin’ ’bout de kyarpit-baggers ever sence, an’ dey ’pears ter fergot all ’bout de Ku-Klux. But I ain’ fergot. De niggers is be’n train’ ter fergiveniss; an’ fer fear dey might fergit how ter fergive, de w’ite folks gives ’em somethin’ new ev’y now an’ den, ter practice on. A w’ite man kin do w’at he wants ter a nigger, but de minute de nigger gits back at ’im, up goes de nigger, an’ don’ come down tell somebody cuts ’im down. If a nigger gits a’ office, er de race ’pears ter be prosperin’ too much, de w’ite folks up an’ kills a few, so dat de res’ kin keep on fergivin’ an’ bein’ thankful dat dey’re lef alive. Don’ talk ter me ’bout dese w’ite folks⁠—I knows ’em, I does! Ef a nigger wants ter git down on his marrowbones, an’ eat dirt, an’ call ’em ‘marster,’ he’s a good nigger, dere’s room fer him. But I ain’ no w’ite folks’ nigger, I ain’. I don’ call no man ‘marster.’ I don’ wan’ nothin’ but w’at I wo’k fer, but I wants all er dat. I never moles’s no w’ite man, ’less ’n he moles’s me fus’. But w’en de ole ’oman dies, doctuh, an’ I gits a good chance at dat w’ite man⁠—dere ain’ no use talkin’, suh!⁠—dere’s gwine ter be a mix-up, an’ a fune’al, er two fune’als⁠—er may be mo’, ef anybody is keerliss enough to git in de way.”

“Josh,” said the doctor, laying a cool hand on the other’s brow, “you’re feverish, and don’t know what you’re talking about. I shouldn’t let my mind dwell on such things, and you must keep quiet until this arm is well, or you may never be able to hit anyone with it again.”

Miller determined that when Josh got better he would talk to him seriously and dissuade him from this dangerous design. He had not asked the name of Josh’s enemy, but the look of murderous hate which the dust-begrimed tramp of the railway journey had cast at Captain George McBane rendered any such question superfluous. McBane was probably deserving of any evil fate which might befall him; but such a revenge would do no good, would right no wrong; while every such crime, committed by a colored man, would be imputed to the race, which was already staggering under a load of obloquy because, in the eyes of a prejudiced and undiscriminating public, it must answer as a whole for the offenses of each separate individual. To die in defense of the right was heroic. To kill another for revenge was pitifully human and weak: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” saith the Lord.