[Back] [Blueprint] [Next]
American Wit and Humor
During the session of the Supreme Court in the village of ——, about three weeks ago, when a number of people were collected in the principal street of the village, I observed a young man riding up and down the street, as I supposed, in a violent passion. He galloped this way, then that, and then the other; spurred his horse to one group of citizens, then to another; then dashed off at half-speed, as if fleeing from danger; and, suddenly checking his horse, returned first in a pace, then in a trot, and then in a canter. While he was performing these various evolutions he cursed, swore, whooped, screamed, and tossed himself in every attitude which man could assume on horseback. In short, he cavorted most magnanimously (a term which, in our tongue, expresses all that I have described, and a little more), and seemed to be setting all creation at defiance. As I like to see all that is passing, I determined to take a position a little nearer to him, and to ascertain, if possible, what it was that affected him so sensibly. Accordingly I approached a crowd before which he had stopped for a moment, and examined it with the strictest scrutiny. But I could see nothing in it that seemed to have anything to do with the cavorter. Every man appeared to be in good humor, and all minding their own business. Not one so much as noticed the principal figure. Still he went on. After a semicolon pause, which my appearance seemed to produce (for he eyed me closely as I approached), he fetched a whoop, and swore that “he could out-swap any live man, woman, or child that ever 123 walked these hills, or that ever straddled horse-flesh since the days of old daddy Adam. Stranger,” said he to me, “did you ever see the Yallow Blossom from Jasper?”
“No,” said I, “but I have often heard of him.”
“I’m the boy,” continued he; “perhaps a leetle, jist a leetle, of the best man at a horse-swap that ever trod shoe-leather.”
I began to feel my situation a little awkward, when I was relieved by a man somewhat advanced in years, who stepped up and began to survey the Yellow Blossom’s horse with much apparent interest. This drew the rider’s attention, and he turned the conversation from me to the stranger.
“Well, my old coon,” said he, “do you want to swap hosses?”
“Why, I don’t know,” replied the stranger; “I believe I’ve got a beast I’d trade with you for that one, if you like him.”
“Well, fetch up your nag, my old cock; you’re jist the lark I wanted to get hold of. I am perhaps a leetle, jist a leetle, of the best man at a horse-swap that ever stole cracklins out of his mammy’s fat gourd. Where’s your hoss?”
“I’ll bring him presently; but I want to examine your horse a little.”
“Oh, look at him, “ said the Blossom, alighting and hitting him a cut — “look at him! He’s the best piece of hoss-flesh in the thirteen united universal worlds. There’s no sort o’ mistake in little Bullet. He can pick up miles on his feet, an fling ’em behind him as fast as the next man’s hoss, I don’t care where he comes from. And he can keep at it as long as the sun can shine without resting.”
During this harangue little Bullet looked as if he understood it all, believed it, and was ready at any moment to verify it. He was a horse of goodly countenance, rather expressive of vigilance than fire; though an unnatural appearance of fierceness was thrown into it by the loss of his ears, which had been 124 cropped pretty close to his head. Nature had done but little to Bullet’s head and neck; but he managed, in a great measure, to hide their defects by bowing perpetually. He had obviously suffered severely for corn; but if his ribs and hip-bones had not disclosed the fact, he never would have done it; for he was in all respects as cheerful and happy as if he commanded all the corn-cribs and fodder-stacks in Georgia. His height was about twelve hands; but as his shape partook somewhat of that of the giraffe, his haunches stood much lower. They were short, strait, peaked, and concave. Bullet’s tail, however, made amends for all his defects. All that the artist could do to beautify it had been done; and all that horse could do to compliment the artist, Bullet did. His tail was nicked in superior style, and exhibited the line of beauty in so many directions that it could not fail to hit the most fastidious taste in some of them. From the root it dropped into a graceful festoon, then rose in a handsome curve, then resumed its first direction, and then mounted suddenly upward like a cypress knee to a perpendicular of about two and a half inches. The whole had a careless and bewitching inclination to the right. Bullet obviously knew where his beauty lay, and took all occasion to display it to the best advantage. If a stick cracked, or if any one moved suddenly about him, or coughed, or hawked, or spoke a little louder than common, up went Bullet’s tail like lightning; and if the going up did not please, the coming down must of necessity, for it was as different from the other movement as was its direction. The first was a bold and rapid flight upwards, usually to an angle of forty-five degrees. In this position he kept his interesting appendage until he satisfied himself that nothing in particular was to be done; when he commenced dropping it by half inches, in second beats, then in triple time, then faster and shorter, and faster and 125 shorter still, until it finally died away imperceptibly into its natural position. If I might compare sights to sounds, I should say its settling was more like the note of a locust than anything else in nature.
Either from native sprightliness of disposition, from uncontrollable activity, or from an unconquerable habit of removing flies by the stamping of the feet, Bullet never stood still, but always kept up a gentle fly-scaring movement of his limbs, which was peculiarly interesting.
“I tell you, man,” proceeded the Yellow Blossom, “he’s the best live hoss that ever trod the grit of Georgia. Bob Smart knows the hoss. Come here, Bob, and mount this hoss, and show Bullet’s motion.” Here Bullet bristled up and looked as if he had been hunting for Bob all day long, and had just found him. Bob sprang on his back. “Boo-oo-oo!” said Bob, with a fluttering noise of the lips, and away went Bullet as if in a quarter race, with all his beauties spread in handsome style.
“Now fetch him back,” said Blossom. Bullet turned and came in pretty much as he went out.
“Now trot him by.” Bullet reduced his tail to customary, sidled to the right and left airily, and exhibited at least three varieties of trot in the short space of fifty years.
“Make him pace!” Bob commenced twisting the bridle and kicking at the same time. These inconsistent movements obviously (and most naturally) disconcerted Bullet: for it was impossible for him to learn from them whether he was to proceed or stand still. He started to trot, and was told that wouldn’t do. He attempted a canter, and was checked again. He stopped, and was urged to go on. Bullet now rushed into the wide field of experiment, and struck out a gait of his own that completely turned the tables upon his rider, and certainly 126 deserved a patent. It seemed to have derived its elements from the jig, the minuet, and the cotillon. If it was not a pace, it certainly had pace in it, and no man would venture to call it anything else; so it passed off to the satisfaction of the owner.
“Walk him!” Bullet was now at home again, and he walked as if money were staked on him.
The stranger, whose name I afterward learned was Peter Ketch, having examined Bullet to his heart’s content, ordered his son Neddy to go and bring up Kit. Neddy soon appeared upon Kit, a well-formed sorrel of the middle size, and in good order. His tout-ensemble threw Bullet entirely in the shade, though a glance was sufficient to satisfy any one that Bullet had the decided advantage of him in point of intellect.
“Why, man,” said Blossom, “do you bring such a hoss as that to trade for Bullet? Oh, I see, you’ve no notion of trading!”
“Ride him off, Neddy!” said Peter. Kit put off at a handsome lope.
“Trot him back!” Kit came in at a long, sweeping trot, and stopped suddenly at the crowd.
“Well,” said Blossom, “let me look at him; maybe he’ll do to plow.”
“Examine him,” said Peter, taking hold of the bridle close to the mouth: “he’s nothing but a tacky. He ain’t as pretty a horse as Bullet, I know, but he’ll do. Start ’em together for a hundred and fifty mile, and if Kit ain’t twenty mile ahead of him at the coming out, any man may take Kit for nothing. But he’s a monstrous mean horse, gentlemen; any man may see that. He’s the scariest horse, too, you ever saw. He won’t do to hunt on, nohow. Stranger, will you let Neddy have your rifle to shoot off him? Lay the rifle between his ears, Neddy, and shoot at the blaze in that stump. Tell me when his head is high enough.”127
Ned fired and hit the blaze, and Kit did not move a hair-breadth.
“Neddy, take a couple of sticks, and beat on that hogshead at Kit’s tail.”
Ned made a tremendous rattling, at which Bullet took fright, broke his bridle, and dashed off in grand style, and would have stopped all further negotiations by going home in disgust, had not a traveler arrested him and brought him back; but Kit did not move.
“I tell you, gentlemen,” continued Peter, “he’s the scariest horse you ever saw. He ain’t as gentle as Bullet, but he won’t do any harm if you watch him. Shall I put him in a cart, gig, or wagon for you, stranger? He’ll cut the same capers there he does here. He’s a monstrous mean horse.”
During all this time Blossom was examining him with the nicest scrutiny. Having examined his frame and limbs, he now looked at his eyes.
“He’s got a curious look out of his eyes,” said Blossom.
“Oh, yes, sir,” said Peter, “just as blind as a bat. Blind horses always have clear eyes. Make a motion at his eyes, if you please, sir.”
Blossom did so, and Kit threw up his head rather as if something pricked him under the chin than as if fearing a blow. Blossom repeated the experiment, and Kit jerked back in considerable astonishment.
“Stone-blind, you see, gentlemen,” proceeded Peter; “but he’s just as good to travel of a dark night as if he had eyes.”
“Blame my buttons,” said Blossom, “if I like them eyes!”
“No,” said Peter, “nor I neither. I’d rather have ’em made of diamonds; but they’ll do — if they don’t show as much white as Bullet’s.”
“Well,” said Blossom, “make a pass at me.”128
“No,” said Peter, “you made the banter, now make your pass.”
“Well, I’m never afraid to price my hosses. You must give me twenty-five dollars boot.”
“Oh, certainly; say fifty, and my saddle and bridle in. Here, Neddy, my son, take away daddy’s horse.”
“Well,” said Blossom, “I’ve made my pass, now you make yours.”
“I’m for short talk in a horse-swap, and therefore always tell a gentleman at once what I mean to do. You must give me ten dollars.”
Blossom swore absolutely, roundly, and profanely that he never would give boot.
“Well,” said Peter, “I didn’t care about trading; but you cut such high shines that I thought I’d like to back you out, and I’ve done it. Gentleman, you see I’ve brought him to a hack.”
“Come, old man,” said Blossom, “I’ve been joking with you. I begin to think you do want to trade; therefore, give me five dollars and take Bullet. I’d rather lose ten dollars any time than not make a trade, though I hate to fling away a good hoss.”
“Well,” said Peter, “I’ll be as clever as you are. Just put the five dollars on Bullet’s back, and hand him over; it’s a trade.
Blossom swore again, as roundly as before, that he would not give boot; and, said he, “Bullet wouldn’t hold five dollars on his back, nohow. But, as I bantered you, if you say an even swap, here’s at you.”
“I told you,’ said Peter, “I’d be as clever as you; therefore, here goes two dollars more, just for trade sake. Give me three dollars, and it’s a bargain.”129
Blossom repeated his former assertion; and here the parties stood for a long time, and the bystanders (for many were now collected) began to taunt both parties. After some time, however, it was pretty unanimously decided that the old man had backed Blossom out.
At length Blossom swore he “never would be backed out for three dollars after bantering a man”; and, accordingly, they closed the trade.
“Now,” said Blossom, as he handed Peter the three dollars, “I’m a man that, when he makes a bad trade, makes the most of it until he can make a better. I’m for no rues and after-claps.”
“That’s just my way,” said Peter; “I never goes to law to mend my bargains.”
“Ah, you’re the kind of boy I love to trade with. Here’s your hoss, old man. Take the saddle and bridle off him, and I’ll strip yours; but lift up the blanket easy from Bullet’s back, for he’s a mighty tender-backed hoss.”
The old man removed the saddle, but the blanket stuck fast. He attempted to raise it, and Bullet bowed himself, switched his tail, danced a little, and gave signs of biting.
“Don’t hurt him, old man,” said Blossom, archly; “take it off easy. I am, perhaps, a leetle of the best man at a horse-swap that ever catched a coon.”
Peter continued to pull at the blanket more and more roughly, and Bullet became more and more cavortish, insomuch that, when the blanket came off, he had reached the kicking point in good earnest.
The removal of the blanket disclosed a sore on Bullet’s backbone that seemed to have defied all medical skill. It measured six full inches in length and four in breadth, and had as many features as Bullet had motions. My heart 130 sickened at the sight; and I felt that the brute who had been riding him in that situation deserved the halter.
The prevailing feeling, however, was that of mirth. The laugh became loud and general at the old man’s expense, and rustic witticisms were liberally bestowed upon him and his late purchase. These Blossom continued to provoke by various remarks. He asked the old man “if he thought Bullet would let five dollars lie on his back.” He declared most seriously that he had owned that horse three months, and had never discovered before that he had a sore back, “or he never should have thought of trading him,” etc., etc.
The old man bore it all with the most philosophic composure. He evinced no astonishment at his late discovery, and made no replies. But his son Neddy had not disciplined his feelings quite so well. His eyes opened wider and wider from the first to the last pull of the blanket, and when the whole sore burst upon his view, astonishment and fright seemed to contend for the mastery of his countenance. As the blanket disappeared, he stuck his hands in his breeches pockets, heaved a deep sigh, and lapsed into a profound reverie, from which he was only roused by the cuts at his father. He bore them as long as he could; and, when he could contain himself no longer, he began, with a certain wildness of expression which gave a peculiar interest to what he uttered: “His back’s mighty bad off; but dod drot my soul if he’s put it to daddy as bad as he things he has, for old Kit’s both blind and deef, I’ll be dod drot if he ein’t!”
“The devil he is!” said Blossom.
“Yes, dod drot my soul if he ein’t! You walk him, and see if he ein’t. His eyes don’t look like it; but he’d jist as leve go agin the house with you, or in a ditch, as anyhow. Now you go try him.” The laugh was now turned on Blossom, 131 and many rushed to test the fidelity of the little boy’s report. A few experiments established its truth beyond controversy.
“Neddy,’ said the old man, “you oughtn’t to try and make people discontented with their things. Stranger, don’t mind what the little boy says. If you can only get Kit rid of them little failings you’ll find him all sorts of a horse. You are a leetle the best man at a horse-swap that ever I got hold of; but don’t fool away Kit. Come, Neddy, my son, let’s be moving; the stranger seems to be getting snappish.”
If my memory fail me not, the 10th of June, 1809, found me at about eleven o’clock in the forenoon, ascending a long and gentle slope in what was called “The Dark Corner” of Lincoln. I believe it took its name from the moral darkness which reigned over that portion of the county at the time of which I am speaking. If in this point of view it was but a shade darker than the rest of the county, it was inconceivably dark. If any man can name a trick or sin which had not been committed at the time of which I am speaking, in the very focus of all the county’s illumination (Lincolnton), he must himself be the most inventive of the tricky and the very Judas of sinners. Since that time, however (all humor aside), Lincoln has become a living proof “that light shineth in darkness.” Could I venture to mingle the solemn with the ludicrous, even for the purposes of honorable contrast, I could adduce from this county instances of the most numerous and wonderful transitions from vice and folly to virtue and holiness which have ever, perhaps, been witnessed since the days of the apostolic ministry. So much, lest 132 it should be thought by some that what I am about to relate is characteristic of the county in which it occurred.
Whatever may be said of the moral condition of the Dark Corner at the time just mentioned, its natural condition was anything but dark. It smiled in all the charms of spring; and spring borrowed a new charm from its undulating grounds, its luxuriant woodlands, its sportive streams, its vocal birds, and its blushing flowers.
Rapt with the enchantment of the season and the scenery around me, I was slowly rising the slope, when I was startled by loud, profane, and boisterous voices which seemed to proceed from a thick covert of undergrowth about two hundred yards in the advance of me, and about one hundred to the right of my road.
“You kin, kin you?”
“Yes, I kin, and am able to do it! Boo-oo-oo! Oh, wake snakes, and walk your chalks! Brimstone and —— fire! Don’t hold me, Nick Stoval! The fight’s made up, and let’s go at it. —— my soul if I don’t jump down his throat, and gallop every chitterling out of him before you can say ‘quit’!”
“Now, Nick, don’t hold him! Jist let the wildcat come, and I’ll tame him. Ned’ll see me a fair fight! Won’t you, Ned?”
“Oh, yes; I’ll see you a fair fight, blast my old shoes if I don’t!”
“That’s sufficient, as Tom Haynes said when he saw the elephant. Now let him come!”
Thus they went on, with countless oaths interspersed, which I dare not even hint at, and with much that I could not distinctly hear.
In mercy’s name, thought I, what band of ruffians has selected this holy season and this heavenly retreat for such pandemoniac riots! I quickened my gait, and had come nearly opposite 133 to the thick grove whence the noise proceeded, when my eye caught, indistinctly and at intervals, through the foliage of the dwarf-oaks and hickories which intervened, glimpses of a man, or men, who seemed to be in a violent struggle; and I could occasionally catch those deep-drawn, emphatic oaths which men in conflict utter when they deal blows. I dismounted, and hurried to the spot with all speed. I had overcome about half the space which separated it from me, when I saw the combatants come to the ground, and, after a short struggle, I saw the uppermost one (for I could not see the other) make a heavy plunge with both his thumbs, and at the same instant I heard a cry in the accent of keenest torture, “Enough! My eye’s out!”
I was so completely horror-struck that I stood transfixed for a moment to the spot where the cry met me. The accomplices in the hellish deed which had been perpetrated had all fled at my approach — at least, I supposed so, for they were not to be seen.
“Now, blast your corn-shucking soul!” said the victor (a youth about eighteen years old) as he rose from the ground — “come cutt’n’ your shines ’bout me agin, next time I come to the court-house, will you? Get your owl eye in agin if you can!”
At this moment he saw me for the first time. He looked excessively embarrassed, and was moving off, when I called to him, in a tone emboldened by the sacredness of my office and the iniquity of his crime, “Come back, you brute, and assist me in relieving your fellow-mortal, whom you have ruined forever!”
My rudeness subdued his embarrassment in an instant; and, with a taunting curl of the nose, he replied, “You needn’t kick before you’re spurred. There a’n’t nobody there, nor ha’n’t been nother. I was jist seein’ how I could ’a’ fout.” So saying, 134 he bounded to his plow, which stood in the corner of the fence about fifty yards beyond the battle-ground.
And, would you believe it, gentle reader? his report was true. All that I had heard and seen was nothing more nor less than a Lincoln rehearsal, in which the youth who had just left me had played all the parts of all the characters in a court-house fight.
I went to the ground from which he had risen, and there were the prints of his two thumbs, plunged up to the balls in the mellow earth, about the distance of a man’s eyes apart; and the ground around was broken up as if two stags had been engaged upon it.
[Back] [Blueprint] [Next]