Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
How the Meanest Man Got so Mean, and How Mean He Got
By Joseph Kirkland (18301894)
[Born in Geneva, N. Y., 1830. Died in Chicago, Ill., 1894. Zury: the Meanest Man in Spring County. 1887.]
EPHRAIM wanted Zury to marry, but it was with a sharp eye to the main chance. Property and personal service at no wages might both be secured by a judicious choice. Girls were not plenty, but at the Peddicombs there were three of marriageable age. Their place was only three miles from Prouders, and they were still the nearest neighbors. Mrs. Peddicomb had not long survived the birth of her three daughters. She died (as was and is common among farmers wives) at not much over thirty years of age, just when her life ought to have been in its prime.
She was called a Come-gals kind of a woman by neighbors; partly in ridicule of her enthusiasm, and partly in admiration of her energy. It was told of her that she would get up before light on Monday, fly raound, uncover the fire, hang on the kettle, and call up the ladder to the loft
The two younger girls had been cared for by the oldest, and so had retained some girlish freshness and delicacy, but as for Mary (the caretaker after her mothers death), she was good-looking only because she looked good.
Wal, yes; mongst the wimmin folks, substantially. Nothin sets em so bad up s bein haansm. Spiles em fer use abaout the place. Th humbly ones take t milkin more willin like; n I dont see but what the caows give daown tew em full s well s tew the haansm ones. N then when ther looks goes the re apt t kick.
Right smart o things t think on afore th ll be any hurry baout a-gittin marrd. Th feller thts in an orfle sweat t marry, hes lible t be the very feller thts behindhand with everythin else. Takes Time by the forelock baout gittin a wife; n by the fetlock baout gittin suthin fer her t eat.
The boy was wedded to his idols quite as faithfully, if not quite so sordidly, as was his father. Their dispositions were much alike. No draft on their powers of endurance and self-denial could be too great.
Dads a screamer t save money! Dye ever see him withe a plaow-pint ontew a plaow? Give him a hickory grub, n he kin dew it so itll run a good half a day; n then withe it on agin in noon-spell whilst th teams a eatin, n then withe it on agin come night sos t be ready fer nex mornn, n keep it up fer a week that-a-way, soonern pay th smith a cent t rivit it fast.
Ya-as, dad; but then I kin make a shillin while yere a savin a cent. Look at it wunst. I upped n sold the smith a half an acre, n took a mortgage on it, n made him dew all aour repairin b way of interest on the mortgage, n then foreclosed th mortgage when it come dew, n got th land back, shop n all. Business is business!
Ephraim always wanted to buy at the shop where they wrapped up the purchases with the largest and strongest paper and twine, and the harnesses on the farm gradually grew to be largely composed of twine. Zury could buy everything at wholesale, half price, including merchandise, paper, twine, harnesses, and all.
Whereupon he took the cash and the pup and walked to the mill-pond, while the boy ran home. Zury threw the little trembling creature as far as he could into the pond. A few seconds of wildly waving small ears, legs, and tail, and then a splash, and then nothing but widening ripples. But out of one of the ripples is poked a little round object, which directs itself bravely toward the shore. Nearer and nearer struggles the small black nozzle, sometimes under water, and sometimes on top, but always nearer.
At last poor little roly-poly drags itself to the land and squats down at the very waters edge, evidently near to the end of its powers. Zury picks it up and swings it for a mighty cast, but stops and studies it a moment.
Later, when the same boy, grown older, applied to Zury for one of the pups, he charged him the full price, fifty cents, took all he had, thirty-six cents, and his note on interest for the balance, the dog being pledged as security. The note being unpaid when due, Zury took back the dog. Business is business!
After Zury had grown to be a prosperous farmer, Chicago became the great market for the sale of grain. Teams by the score would start out from far down the State, and, driving during the day and camping at night, make the long journey. They would go in pairs or squads so as to be able to double teams over the bad places. Forty or fifty bushels could thus be carried in one load, when the chief parts of the roads were good, and the ready john (hard cash) could be got for the grain, at twenty or thirty cents a bushel for corn or wheat. This sum would provide a barrel or two of salt, and perhaps a plow and a bundle of dry goods and knicknacks for the women folks, the arrival of which was a great event in the lonely farm-houses.
Zury had now working for him (besides Jule, who kept house and attended to the live stock) a young fellow who became a score of years afterward private, corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, and captain in the th Illinois Volunteer Infantry in the great war. From his stories, told in bivouacs and beside camp-fires, to toiling, struggling, suffering boys in blue, these tales are taken almost verbatim. (Some of them have already found their way into print.)
Zury always wanted to get onto the road with farmers whose housekeeping was good, because his own waswell, wuss thn what we git down here in Dixie, an theres no need of that. Well, when theyd halt for noon-spell, Zury hed happen along promiscuous-like, an most generally some of em would make him stop an take a bite. He was good company if he was so near. N then a mans feed warnt counted fer much, unless it was some store-truck or boughten stuff.
But one day they jest passed the wink and sot it up on him, and come noon-spell nobody asked Zury an me to eat. Zury left me to take care of both teams while he walked up and down the line of wagins. Everybody who hadnt jest eat, warnt quite ready yet, an by the next time he came to those who hadnt been quite ready, theyd jest eat.
Wal, Zury swallered his disappointment and I swallerd all the chawed wheat I could git away with, and the first settlement we passed Zury went and bought a monstrous big bag of sody-crackers, and we eat them for supper and breakfast. And still we were not happy.
Next noon-spell Zury said: Boys, sposin we kinder whack up n mess together. Wal, the othersd had enough of their joke, and so they all agreed, and chipped in. Ham, pickles, pies, cakes, honey, eggs, apples, and one thing another. Ye see every mans o woman knew that when they got together, her housekeep would be compared with everybody elses; so these long drives were like donation parties, or weddings, or funeralswell fed.
Of course, Zurys sody-crackers went in with the rest, an me an Zury always ate some anyhow for appearance sake. I could see the fellers were all makin fun of Zurys cute dodge of gettin a dozen good meals for him an me at the price of a few pounds of sody-crackers. But then, they didnt know Zury so well as they thought they did. By an by the trip was done an settlin-up-time came, when each man was called on for his share of pasturage, ferriage, an one thing another. Zury paid his, but he deducted out twenty-five cents paid for sody-crackers. Said it was one of the cash outlays for the common good, an if any of the rest of em spent money an didnt put it in, more fools they. Business is business.
So Zury in the soda-cracker episode came out top of the heap as usual. The top of the heap was his accustomed place, but still he perceived that he was living under one useless disability, and with his quick adaptation of means to ends and remedies to deficiencies, he simplymarried. In doing this, he was guided by his fathers shrewd words; counsel which had lain fallow in his memory for years.
Zurys marriageability had, of course, not been unobserved in the household of the three daughters. Peddicomb had remarked what a good outin the Prouders had made in their purchase of swine from him, and cherished the same kind of feeling toward them that most of us experience when some other person has done better in a joint transaction than we did.
Them Praouders, the ll skin outer the land all the kin skin, n then sell offen the place all t anybodyll buy, n then feed t the hawgs all a hawg ll eat, n then give th rest t th dawg, n then what th dawg wont tech the ll live on theirselves.
Yew bet, tittered Semantha, the second. That thar ornery Zury Praouder hed let a woman starve t death ef he could. N o man Praouder wuz th same way, tew. Th o woman she wuz near abaout skin n bone when the buried her. I seen her in her coffin, n I know.
Six hunderd n forty acres o good land, all fenced n paid fer; n a big orchard; n all well stocked, tew. (He added this with a pang, remembering once more the pig-purchase, which by this time had grown to a mighty drove, spite of many sales.)
One Sunday afternoon Zury rode over to Peddicombs to get a wife. He tried to decide which girl to ask, but his mind would wander off to other subjectscrops, live stock, bargains, investments. He didnt much think that either girl he asked would say no, but if she did, he could ask the others. When he came near the house he caught sight of one of the girls, in her Sunday clothes, picking a posy in the front garding. It was Mary.
All peart: that is t say th aint no one naow ye know, but me n Jule n Mac. That makes a kind of a bob-tail team, ye know, Mary. Nobody but Jule t look out fer things. Not bt what hes a pretty fair of a nigger as niggers go. He cd stay raoun n help some aoutside.
Wal, yes. He answered this in a tone where she might have detected the suggestion, or one of your sisters, if she had been keen and critical. But she was neither. She simply rested her work-worn hand upon the gate-post and her chin upon her hand, and looked dreamily off over the prairie. She pondered the novel proposition for some time, but fortunately not quite long enough to cause Zury to ask if either of her sisters was at home, as he was quite capable of doing.
Mary had no objection to urge, though possibly in her secret heart she wished there had been a little more sentiment and romance about it. No woman likes to be cheated out of her wooing, but then this might come later. He called for her with the wagon on the appointed day, and they drove to the house of a justice of the peace who lived a good distance away. This was not for the sake of making a wedding trip, but because this particular justice owed Zury money, as Zury carefully explained.
For a year or two or three after marriage (during which two boys were born to them) Zury found that he had gained, by this investment, something more than mere profit and economythat affection and sympathy were realities in life. But gradually the old dominant mania resumed its course, and involved in its current the weak wife as well as the strong husband. The general verdict was that both Zury and Mary were jests near s they could stick n live. Theyd skin a flea fer its hide n taller.
He gin an acre o graound fer the church n scule-house, n it raised the value of his hull farm more n a dollar an acre. N when he got onto the scule-board she llaowed she hadnt released her daower right, n put him up t tax the deestrick fer the price of that same acre o ground.
So Zury, claiming the proud position of the meanest ma-an in Spring Caounty, would like to hear his claim disputed. If he had a rival he would like to have him pointed out, and would try pootty hard but what hed match him.
Th aint nothin mean abaout Zury, mean s he is. Gimme a man as sez right aout look aout fer yerself, n I kin git along with him. Its these hyer sneakin fellers thts one thing afore yer face n another behind yer back tht I cant abide. Take ye by th beard with one hand n smite ye under th fifth rib with tother! He pays his way n dooz s he grees every time. When he buys taters o me, Id jest s live s hev him measure em s measure em myself with him a-lookin on. He knows haow t trade, n ef yew dont, he dont want ye t trade with him, thats all; ner t grumble if ye git holt o the hot eend o th poker arter hes give ye fair notice. Better be shaved with a sharp razor than a dull one.
Honest? Me? Wal, I guess so. Fustly, I wouldnt be nothn else, nohaow; seckndly, I kin fford t be, seein s haow it takes a full bag t stand alone; thirdly, I cant fford t be nothn else, coz honesty s th best policy.
In peace as in war strong men love foemen worthy of their steel. Men liked to be with Zury and hear his gay, shrewd talk; to trade with him, and meet his frankly brutal greed. He enjoyed his popularity, and liked to do good turns to others when it cost him nothing. When elected to local posts of trust and confidence he served the public in the same efficient fashion in which he served himself, and he was therefore continually elected to school directorships and other like thankee jobs.