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During the next month the colonel made several attempts to see Fetters, but some fatality seemed always to prevent their meeting. He finally left the matter of finding Fetters to Caxton, who ascertained that Fetters would be in attendance at court during a certain week, at Carthage, the county seat of the adjoining county, where the colonel had been once before to inspect a cotton mill. Thither the colonel went on the day of the opening of court. His train reached town toward noon and he went over to the hotel. He wondered if he would find the proprietor sitting where he had found him some weeks before. But the buggy was gone from before the piazza, and there was a new face behind the desk. The colonel registered, left word that he would be in to dinner, and then went over to the court house, which lay behind the trees across the square.
The court house was an old, square, hip-roofed brick structure, whose walls, whitewashed the year before, had been splotched and discoloured by the weather. From one side, under the eaves, projected a beam, which supported a bell rung by a rope from the window below. A hall ran through the centre, on either side of which were the county offices, while the court room with a judge's room and jury room, occupied the upper floor.
The colonel made his way across the square, which showed the usual signs of court being in session. There were buggies hitched to trees and posts here and there, a few Negroes sleeping in the sun, and several old coloured women with little stands for the sale of cakes, and fried fish, and cider.
The colonel went upstairs to the court room. It was fairly well filled, and he remained standing for a few minutes near the entrance. The civil docket was evidently on trial, for there was a jury in the box, and a witness was being examined with some prolixity with reference to the use of a few inches of land which lay on one side or on the other of a disputed boundary. From what the colonel could gather, that particular line fence dispute had been in litigation for twenty years, had cost several lives, and had resulted in a feud that involved a whole township.
The testimony was about concluded when the colonel entered, and the lawyers began their arguments. The feeling between the litigants seemed to have affected their attorneys, and the court more than once found it necessary to call counsel to order. The trial was finished, however, without bloodshed; the case went to the jury, and court was adjourned until two o'clock.
The colonel had never met Fetters, nor had he seen anyone in the court room who seemed likely to be the man. But he had seen his name freshly written on the hotel register, and he would doubtless go there for dinner. There would be ample time to get acquainted and transact his business before court reassembled for the afternoon.
Dinner seemed to be a rather solemn function, and except at a table occupied by the judge and the lawyers, in the corner of the room farthest from the colonel, little was said. A glance about the room showed no one whom the colonel could imagine to be Fetters, and he was about to ask the waiter if that gentleman had yet entered the dining room, when a man came in and sat down on the opposite side of the table. The colonel looked up, and met the cheerful countenance of the liveryman from whom he had hired a horse and buggy some weeks before.
"Howdy do?" said the newcomer amiably. "Hope you've been well."
"Quite well," returned the colonel, "how are you?"
"Oh, just tol'able. Tendin' co't?"
"No, I came down here to see a man that's attending court--your friend Fetters. I suppose he'll be in to dinner."
"Oh, yes, but he ain't come in yet. I reckon you find the ho-tel a little different from the time you were here befo'."
"This is a better dinner than I got," replied the colonel, "and I haven't seen the landlord anywhere, nor his buggy."
"No, he ain't here no more. Sad loss to Carthage! You see Bark Fetters--that's Bill's boy that's come home from the No'th from college--Bark Fetters come down here one day, an' went in the ho-tel, an' when Lee Dickson commenced to put on his big airs, Bark cussed 'im out, and Lee, who didn't know Bark from Adam, cussed 'im back, an' then Bark hauled off an' hit 'im. They had it hot an' heavy for a while. Lee had more strength, but Bark had more science, an' laid Lee out col'. Then Bark went home an' tol' the ole man, who had a mortgage on the ho-tel, an' he sol' Lee up. I hear he's barberin' or somethin' er that sort up to Atlanta, an' the hotel's run by another man. There's Fetters comin' in now."
The colonel glanced in the direction indicated, and was surprised at the appearance of the redoubtable Fetters, who walked over and took his seat at the table with the judge and the lawyers. He had expected to meet a tall, long-haired, red-faced, truculent individual, in a slouch hat and a frock coat, with a loud voice and a dictatorial manner, the typical Southerner of melodrama. He saw a keen-eyed, hard-faced small man, slightly gray, clean-shaven, wearing a well-fitting city-made business suit of light tweed. Except for a few little indications, such as the lack of a crease in his trousers, Fetters looked like any one of a hundred business men whom the colonel might have met on Broadway in any given fifteen minutes during business hours.
The colonel timed his meal so as to leave the dining-room at the same moment with Fetters. He went up to Fetters, who was chewing a toothpick in the office, and made himself known.
"I am Mr. French," he said--he never referred to himself by his military title--"and you, I believe, are Mr. Fetters?"
"Yes, sir, that's my name," replied Fetters without enthusiasm, but eyeing the colonel keenly between narrowed lashes.
"I've been trying to see you for some time, about a matter," continued the colonel, "but never seemed able to catch up with you before."
"Yes, I heard you were at my house, but I was asleep upstairs, and didn't know you'd be'n there till you'd gone."
"Your man told me you had gone to the capital for two weeks."
"My man? Oh, you mean Turner! Well, I reckon you must have riled Turner somehow, and he thought he'd have a joke on you."
"I don't quite see the joke," said the colonel, restraining his displeasure. "But that's ancient history. Can we sit down over here in the shade and talk by ourselves for a moment?"
Fetters followed the colonel out of doors, where they drew a couple of chairs to one side, and the colonel stated the nature of his business. He wished to bargain for the release of a Negro, Bud Johnson by name, held to service by Fetters under a contract with Clarendon County. He was willing to pay whatever expense Fetters had been to on account of Johnson, and an amount sufficient to cover any estimated profits from his services.
Meanwhile Fetters picked his teeth nonchalantly, so nonchalantly as to irritate the colonel. The colonel's impatience was not lessened by the fact that Fetters waited several seconds before replying.
"Well, Mr. Fetters, what say you?"
"Colonel French," said Fetters, "I reckon you can't have the nigger."
"Is it a matter of money?" asked the colonel. "Name your figure. I don't care about the money. I want the man for a personal reason."
"So do I," returned Fetters, coolly, "and money's no object to me. I've more now than I know what to do with."
The colonel mastered his impatience. He had one appeal which no Southerner could resist.
"Mr. Fetters," he said, "I wish to get this man released to please a lady."
"Sorry to disoblige a lady," returned Fetters, "but I'll have to keep the nigger. I run a big place, and I'm obliged to maintain discipline. This nigger has been fractious and contrary, and I've sworn that he shall work out his time. I have never let any nigger get the best of me--or white man either," he added significantly.
The colonel was angry, but controlled himself long enough to make one more effort. "I'll give you five hundred dollars for your contract," he said rising from his chair.
"You couldn't get him for five thousand."
"Very well, sir," returned the colonel, "this is not the end of this. I will see, sir, if a man can be held in slavery in this State, for a debt he is willing and ready to pay. You'll hear more of this before I'm through with it."
"Another thing, Colonel French," said Fetters, his quiet eyes glittering as he spoke, "I wonder if you recollect an incident that occurred years ago, when we went to the academy in Clarendon?"
"If you refer," returned the colonel promptly, "to the time I chased you down Main Street, yes--I recalled it the first time I heard of you when I came back to Clarendon--and I remember why I did it. It is a good omen."
"That's as it may be," returned Fetters quietly. "I didn't have to recall it; I've never forgotten it. Now you want something from me, and you can't have it."
"We shall see," replied the colonel. "I bested you then, and I'll best you now."
"We shall see," said Fetters.
Fetters was not at all alarmed, indeed he smiled rather pityingly. There had been a time when these old aristocrats could speak, and the earth trembled, but that day was over. In this age money talked, and he had known how to get money, and how to use it to get more. There were a dozen civil suits pending against him in the court house there, and he knew in advance that he should win them every one, without directly paying any juryman a dollar. That any nigger should get away while he wished to hold him, was--well, inconceivable. Colonel French might have money, but he, Fetters, had men as well; and if Colonel French became too troublesome about this nigger, this friendship for niggers could be used in such a way as to make Clarendon too hot for Colonel French. He really bore no great malice against Colonel French for the little incident of their school days, but he had not forgotten it, and Colonel French might as well learn a lesson. He, Fetters, had not worked half a lifetime for a commanding position, to yield it to Colonel French or any other man. So Fetters smoked his cigar tranquilly, and waited at the hotel for his anticipated verdicts. For there could not be a jury impanelled in the county which did not have on it a majority of men who were mortgaged to Fetters. He even held the Judge's note for several hundred dollars.
The colonel waited at the station for the train back to Clarendon. When it came, it brought a gang of convicts, consigned to Fetters. They had been brought down in the regular "Jim Crow" car, for the colonel saw coloured women and children come out ahead of them. The colonel watched the wretches, in coarse striped garments, with chains on their legs and shackles on their hands, unloaded from the train and into the waiting wagons. There were burly Negroes and flat-shanked, scrawny Negroes. Some wore the ashen hue of long confinement. Some were shamefaced, some reckless, some sullen. A few white convicts among them seemed doubly ashamed--both of their condition and of their company; they kept together as much as they were permitted, and looked with contempt at their black companions in misfortune. Fetters's man and Haines, armed with whips, and with pistols in their belts, were present to oversee the unloading, and the colonel could see them point him out to the State officers who had come in charge of the convicts, and see them look at him with curious looks. The scene was not edifying. There were criminals in New York, he knew very well, but he had never seen one. They were not marched down Broadway in stripes and chains. There were certain functions of society, as of the body, which were more decently performed in retirement. There was work in the State for the social reformer, and the colonel, undismayed by his temporary defeat, metaphorically girded up his loins, went home, and, still metaphorically, set out to put a spoke in Fetters's wheel.
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