"AN′ now, young man, w′at you want to remember is this - an′ take it fer yo′ motto: ′No monkey-shines with Uncle Sam.′ You undastan′? You aware now o′ the penalties attached to monkey-shinin′ with Uncle Sam. I reckon that ′s ′bout all I got to say; so you be on han′ promp′ to-morrow mornin′ at seven o′clock, to take charge o′ the United States mail-bag."
This formed the close of a very pompous address delivered by the postmaster of Cloutierville to young Armand Verchette, who had been appointed to carry the mails from the village to the railway station three miles away.
Armand - or Chouchoute, as every one chose to call him, following the habit of the Creoles in giving nicknames - had heard the man a little impatiently.
Not so the negro boy who accompanied him. The child had listened with the deepest respect and awe to every word of the rambling admonition.
"How much you gwine git, Marse Chouchoute?" he asked, as they walked down the village street together, the black boy a little behind. He was very black, and slightly deformed; a small boy, scarcely reaching to the shoulder of his companion, whose castoff garments he wore. But Chouchoute was tall for his sixteen years, and carried himself well.
"W′y, I ′m goin′ to git thirty dolla′ a month, Wash; w′at you say to that? Betta ′an hoein′ cotton, ain′t it?" He laughed with a triumphant ring in his voice.
But Wash did not laugh; he was too much impressed by the importance of this new function, too much bewildered by the vision of sudden wealth which thirty dollars a month meant to his understanding.
He felt, too, deeply conscious of the great weight of responsibility which this new office brought with it. The imposing salary had confirmed the impression left by the postmaster′s words.
" You gwine git all dat money? Sakes! W′at you reckon Ma′ame Verchette say? I know she gwine mos′ take a fit w′en she heah dat."
But Chonchoute′s mother did not "mos′ take a fit" when she heard of her son′s good fortune. The white and wasted hand which she rested upon the boy′s black curls trembled a little, it is true, and tears of emotion came into her tired eyes. This step seemed to her the beginning of better things for her fatherless boy.
They lived quite at the end of this little French village, which was simply two long rows of very old frame houses, facing each other closely across a dusty roadway.
Their home was a cottage, so small and so humble that it just escaped the reproach of being a cabin.
Every one was kind to Madame Verchette. Neighbors ran in of mornings to help her with her work - she could do so little for herself. And often the good priest, Père Antoine, came to sit with her and talk innocent gossip.
To say that Wash was fond of Madame Verchette and her son is to be poor in language to express devotion. He worshiped her as if she were already an angel in Paradise.
Chouchoute was a delightful young fellow; no one could help loving him. His heart was as warm and cheery as his own southern sunbeams. If he was born with an unlucky trick of forgetfulness - or better, thoughtlessness - no one ever felt much like blaming him for it, so much did it seem a part of his happy, careless nature. And why was that faithful watch-dog, Wash, always at Marse Chouchoute′s heels, if it were not to be hands and ears and eyes to him, more than half the time?
One beautiful spring night, Chouchoute, on his way to the station, was riding along the road that skirted the river. The clumsy mail-bag that lay before him across the pony was almost empty; for the Cloutierville mail was a meagre and unimportant one at best.
But he did not know this. He was not thinking of the mail, in fact; he was only feeling that life was very agreeable this delicious spring night.
There were cabins at intervals upon the road - most of them darkened, for the hour was late. As he approached one of these, which was more pretentious than the others, he heard the sound of a fiddle, and saw lights through the openings of the house.
It was so far from the road that when he stopped his horse and peered through the darkness he could not recognize the dancers who passed before the open doors and windows. But he knew this was Gros-Léon′s ball, which he had heard the boys talking about all the week.
Why should he not go and stand in the doorway an instant and exchange a word with the dancers?
Chouchoute dismounted, fastened his horse to the fence-post, and proceeded towards the house.
The room, crowded with people young and old, was long and low, with rough beams across the ceiling, blackened by smoke and time. Upon the high mantelpiece a single coal-oil lamp burned, and none too brightly.
In a far corner, upon a platform of boards laid across two flour barrels, sat Uncle Ben, playing upon a squeaky fiddle, and shouting the "figures."
"Ah! v′là Chouchoute!" some one called.
"Jus′ in time, Chouchoute; yere ′s Miss Léontine waitin′ fer a partna."
"S′lute yo′ partnas!" Uncle Ben was thundering forth; and Chouchoute, with one hand gracefully behind him, made a profound bow to Miss Léontine, as he offered her the other.
Now Chouchoute was noted far and wide for his skill as a dancer. The moment he stood upon the floor, a fresh spirit seemed to enter into all present. It was with renewed vigor that Uncle Ben intoned his "Balancy all! Fus′ fo′ fo′ard an′ back!"
The spectators drew close about the couples to watch Chouchoute′s wonderful performance; his pointing of toes; his pigeon-wings in which his feet seemed hardly to touch the floor.
"It take Chouchoute to show ′em de step, va ! " proclaimed Gros-Léon, with a fat satisfaction, to the audience at large.
"Look ′im! look ′im yonda! Ole Ben got to work hard′ ′an dat, if he want to keep up wid Chouchoute, I tell you!"
So it was; encouragement and adulation on all sides, till, from the praise that was showered on him, Chouchoute′s head was soon as light as his feet.
At the windows appeared the dusky faces of negroes, their bright eyes gleaming as they viewed the scene within and mingled their loud guffaws with the medley of sound that was already deafening.
The time was speeding. The air was heavy in the room, but no one seemed to mind this. Uncle Ben was calling the figures now with a rhythmic sing-song: -
"Right an′ lef′ all ′roun′! Swing co′-nas!"
Chouchoute turned with a smile to Miss Félicie on his left, his hand extended, when what should break upon his ear but the long, harrowing wail of a locomotive!
Before the sound ceased he had vanished from the room. Miss Félicie stood as he left her, with hand uplifted, rooted to the spot with astonishment.
It was the train whistling for his station, and he a mile and more away! He knew he was too late, and that he could not make the distance; but the sound had been a rude reminder that he was not at his post of duty.
However, he would do what he could now. He ran swiftly to the outer road, and to the spot where he had left his pony.
The horse was gone, and with it the United States mail-bag!
For an instant Chouchoute stood half-stunned with terror. Then, in one quick flash, came to his mind a vision of possibilities that sickened him. Disgrace overtaking him in this position of trust; poverty his portion again; and his dear mother forced to share both with him.
He turned desperately to some negroes who had followed him, seeing his wild rush from the house: -
"Who saw my hoss? W′at you all did with my hoss, say?"
"Who you reckon tech yo′ hoss, boy?" grumbled Gustave, a sullen-looking mulatto. "You didn′ have no call to lef′ ′im in de road, fus′ place."
" ′Pear to me like I heahed a hoss a-lopin′ down de road jis′ now; didn′ you, Uncle Jake?" ventured a second.
"Neva heahed nuttin′ - nuttin′ ′t all, ′cep′ dat big-mouf Ben yonda makin′ mo′ fuss ′an a t′unda-sto′m."
"Boys!" cried Chouchoute, excitedly, "bring me a hoss, quick, one of you. I ′m boun′ to have one! I ′m boun′ to! I ′ll give two dolla′ to the firs′ man brings me a hoss."
Near at hand, in the "lot" that adjoined Uncle Jake′s cabin, was his little creole pony, nibbling the cool, wet grass that he found, along the edges and in the corners of the fence.
The negro led the pony forth. With no further word, and with one bound, Chouchoute was upon the animal′s back. He wanted neither saddle nor bridle, for there were few horses in the neighborhood that had not been trained to be guided by the simple motions of a rider′s body.
Once mounted, he threw himself forward with a certain violent impulse, leaning till his cheek touched the animal′s mane.
He uttered a sharp "Hei!" and at once, as if possessed by sudden frenzy, the horse dashed forward, leaving the bewildered black men in a cloud of dust.
What a mad ride it was! On one side was the river bank, steep in places and crumbling away; on the other an unbroken line of fencing; now in straight lines of neat planking, now treacherous barbed wire, sometimes the zigzag rail.
The night was black, with only such faint light as the stars were shedding. No sound was to be heard save the quick thud of the horse′s hoofs upon the hard dirt road, the animal′s heavy breathing, and the boy′s feverish "hei-hei!" when he fancied the speed slackened.
Occasionally a marauding dog started from the obscurity to bark and give useless chase.
"To the road, to the road, Bon-à-rien!" panted Chouchoute, for the horse in his wild race had approached so closely to the river′s edge that the bank crumbled beneath his flying feet. It was only by a desperate lunge and bound that he saved himself and rider from plunging into the water below.
Chouchoute hardly knew what he was pursuing so madly. It was rather something that drove him; fear, hope, desperation.
He was rushing to the station, because it seemed to him, naturally, the first thing to do. There was the faint hope that his own horse had broken rein and gone there of his own accord; but such hope was almost lost in a wretched conviction that had seized him the instant he saw "Gustave the thief " among the men gathered at Gros-Léon′s.
"Hei! hei, Bon-à-rien!"
The lights of the railway station were gleaming ahead, and Chouchoute′s hot ride was almost at an end.
With sudden and strange perversity of purpose, Chouchoute, as he drew closer upon the station, slackened his horse′s speed. A low fence was in his way. Not long before, he would have cleared it at a bound, for Bon-à-rien could do such things. Now he cantered easily to the end of it, to go through the gate which was there.
His courage was growing faint, and his heart sinking within him as he drew nearer and nearer.
He dismounted, and holding the pony by the mane, approached with some trepidation the young station-master, who was taking note of some freight that had been deposited near the tracks.
"Mr. Hudson," faltered Chouchoute, "did you see my pony ′roun′ yere anywhere? an′ - an′ the mail-sack?"
"Your pony ′s safe in the woods, Chou′te. The mail-bag ′s on its way to New Orleans" -
"Thank God!" breathed the boy.
"But that poor little fool darkey of yours has about done it for himself, I guess."
"Wash? Oh, Mr. Hudson! w′at ′s - w′at ′s happen′ to Wash?"
"He ′s inside there, on my mattress. He ′s hurt, and he ′s hurt bad; that ′s what ′s the matter. You see the ten forty-five had come in, and she did n′t make much of a stop; she was just pushing out, when bless me if that little chap of yours did n′t come tearing along on Spunky as if Old Harry was behind him.
"You know how No. 22 can pull at the start; and there was that little imp keeping abreast of her ′most under the thing′s wheels.
"I shouted at him. I could n′t make out what he was up to, when blamed if he did n′t pitch the mail-bag clean into the car! Buffalo Bill could n′t have done it neater.
"Then Spunky, she shied; and Wash he bounced against the side of that car and back, like a rubber ball, and laid in the ditch till we carried him inside.
"I ′ve wired down the road for Doctor Campbell to come up on 14 and do what he can for him."
Hudson had related these events to the distracted boy while they made their way toward the house.
Inside, upon a low pallet, lay the little negro, breathing heavily, his black face pinched and ashen with approaching death. He had wanted no one to touch him further than to lay him upon the bed.
The few men and colored women gathered in the room were looking upon him with pity mingled with curiosity.
When he saw Chouchoute he closed his eyes and a shiver passed through his small frame. Those about him thought he was dead. Chouchoute knelt, choking, at his side and held his hand.
"O Wash, Wash! W′at you did that for? W′at made you, Wash?"
"Marse Chouchoute," the boy whispered, so low that no one could hear him but his friend, "I was gwine ′long de big road, pas′ Marse Gros-Léon′s, an′ I seed Spunky tied dah wid de mail. Dar warn′t a minute - I ′clar′, Marse Chouchoute, dar warn′t a minute - to fotch you. W′at makes my head tu′n ′roun′ dat away?"
"Neva mine, Wash; keep still; don′t you try to talk," entreated Chouchoute.
"You ain′t mad, Marse Chouchoute?"
The lad could only answer with a hand pressure.
"Dar warn′t a minute, so I gits top o′ Spunky - I neva seed nuttin′ cl′ar de road like dat. I come ′long side - de train - an′ fling de sack. I seed ′im kotch it, and I don′ know nuttin′ mo′ ′cep′ mis′ry, tell I see you - a-comin′ frough de do′. Mebby Ma′ame Armand know some′pin," he murmured faintly, "w′at gwine make my - head quit tu′nin′ ′round dat away. I boun′ to git well, ′ca′se who - gwine - watch Marse - Chouchoute?"